NASA Ames' computer powerhouse gets a major upgrade | August 30, 2019 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

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News - August 30, 2019

NASA Ames' computer powerhouse gets a major upgrade

Aitken supercomputer's cooling system uses Bay breezes to cut electricity, water demand

by Mark Noack

To fuel a future mission to the moon and someday Mars, NASA is facing a near insatiable demand for more computing power.

On any given day, the NASA Ames's main supercomputer, with its 250,000 processors, is churning away at complex models to inspect a constellation of research. Its computer simulators test every inch of spaceship fuselage while also modeling global oceanic patterns and scanning distant star systems for signs of planets. As many as 1,500 separate research projects and simulations are running simultaneously through NASA supercomputing nervous system, and that demand for data is expected to continue rising at a rapid pace.

"High performance computing has become a powerful and indispensable tool for advancing many national priorities and missions," said NASA Ames Director Eugene Tu. "Supercomputing has been recognized at the highest levels of our government as vital to the nation's prosperity, national and economic security, industrial production, engineering and scientific advancement."

But like any large data center, keeping the lights on at NASA's supercomputing facility has been an ongoing challenge. The cost to power and cool thousands of computer nodes is immense, today requiring about 5 million gallons of water a day and about 6 megawatts of electricity, roughly the equivalent of 6,000 households.

Now NASA officials say they've figured out a new way to dramatically reduce those costs. In a successful new prototype, space agency officials say they have found a way to build smaller "modular" supercomputing hubs that can harness the natural winds coming off the San Francisco Bay shoreline.

The move represents a break away from the traditional design of pooling ever-larger numbers of CPUs in tightly controlled facilities. NASA officials described the new modular processing units as being like "plug and play" add-ons that will easily allow them to scale up as technology advances and their needs for number-crunching increases.

"We're the first to push this concept at this scale," said Bill Thigpen, NASA Advanced Computer branch chief. "This gives us a huge amount of flexibility. If NASA needs more computational power, we can add it almost immediately."

On Thursday, Aug. 22, Thigpen led a pool of reporters on a tour of Aitken supercomputer, one of the first of these new modular powerhouses to be built at Ames. The facility was tucked in the rear of the NASA Ames Research Center, just down the road from the Pleiades supercomputer, which for years has been the flagship of the agency's computing division.

Thigpen led the visitors to a one-acre concrete lot that was completely empty except for a nondescript white building about the size of a studio apartment. It looked like a utility shed. That was Aitken, he said.

Walking over to the side of the building, Aitken demonstrated the cooling system, which blew air through a copper screen with water flowing through it. It was basically a more advanced version of a radiator or a swamp cooler, he said, saying that its results were game-changing. By improving on this simple design, NASA engineers had cut energy and water usage by more than 90%, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

A significant element of that savings was due to the dry coastal winds that could be easily chilled. The baylands are like "nirvana" for a supercomputing facility, Thigpen said.

Stepping inside the white Aitken building, Thigpen walked between the large server nodes, trying hard to talk over the roar of all the fans and equipment. Currently, the room contained just over 46,000 processors, but that capacity could soon grow.

Outside, about 12 large yellow boxes were painted on the empty concrete parcel, indicating spots where future mini supercomputers like Aitken would eventually be built. As soon as NASA needs more processing power, Thigpen said his team could swiftly construct an identical facility for the relatively low cost of about $35 million.

"In just two months, I could double what we have here." he said. "By doing this one piece at a time, we're able to take advantage of the computing advances as well as any facility improvements."

NASA officials said they were eager to share their lessons on building more efficient supercomputers with any private parties who were interested.

Email Mark Noack at


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