NCSA hosts Petascale Day in celebration of big computing and data

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications hosted Petascale Day on Tuesday. The Blue Waters supercomputer was open to the public in a “celebration of big computing and big data.”

A petascale supercomputer refers to a computer capable of performing a quadrillion calculations a second, also referred to as a petaflop. It is a feat Blue Waters can tredecuple as it runs more than 13 quadrillion calculations per second. A human would need to perform one calculation each second for the next 31 million years to run one quadrillion calculations, according to the NCSA website.

Blue Waters contains 25 petabytes of disk space as well, which is enough space to store all of the printed documents in all of the world’s libraries, according to the NCSA website.

Petascale Day is a chance for NCSA staff to talk about the power of the supercomputer, how it’s used and how it benefits scientists, engineers and the University, said Trish Barker, NCSA public affairs coordinator.

“I think for anyone who is associated with the University of Illinois as a student or as a faculty member or as a staff (member), it’s an interesting thing you can brag about … that we have one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world right here on our campus,” she said. “We have these amazing researchers on our campus who are really tackling these huge problems and learning new things every day.”

Petascale Day was a two-part event that included self-paced tours of the supercomputer as well as 15-minute viewings of 3D visualizations of scientific phenomena at the NCSA building.

The date of the event is no coincidence. Oct. 15 was derived from the fact one quadrillion in scientific notation is one times 10 to the fifteenth power.

Currently, the supercomputer is being used to study molecular dynamics, space weather and climate change, among other topics, Barker said.

“The type of computing we’re talking about with the supercomputer is really different from the type of computing most people do in their everyday lives, so it’s an interesting moment, a revelation in a way, of this different type of computer, this different type of way to use computers,” Barker said.

A marked floor path and informational signs guided visitors through the building all the way to the supercomputer, where visitors could get a feel for its immense size, Barker said. She added that Blue Waters is around 5,000 square feet and is very loud.

Scientific data transformed into animations and images was displayed at the NCSA building, including the Orion Nebula and hurricane simulations, created by NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory, Barker said. The laboratory creates data-driven scientific visualizations that have been viewed at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, IMAX theaters, planetariums and other venues.

“What’s exciting for the people at NCSA is that (they) really get to help be pioneers in this space every day … (they) get to be explorers,” said Evan Burness, NCSA private sector program manager. “We get to open our doors and show the community what we get to work with, and that’s really exciting because we’d like to share our work with others.”

Guides from public affair groups and technical support staff were available at both the Blue Waters and NCSA facilities to answer questions. A common question Barker often answers is, “What is the supercomputer doing?”

“We can explain a little bit about the types of scientific research people use the supercomputer for … and we can talk a little bit more about how some of those things actually have an impact on our lives,” she said.

Blue Waters is available for tours year-round, and some professors at the University use the supercomputer as an educational opportunity. Indranil Gupta, associate professor of computer science, sent his Distributed Systems class on a tour in order for his students to see where the programming they’re being taught actually goes into effect.

“Exposure is important,” Gupta said. “It’s curiosity, which is that almost everyone uses some piece of software that resides on a data center like Blue Waters, whether you’re using Gmail, whether you’re using Facebook or whether you’re just using something like Skype. It concretizes some of these notions that otherwise are not known for general public.”

From class field trips to family tours to even going alone, Blue Waters staff encourage everybody to experience the facility.

“I absolutely encourage everyone to come out and visit because they’re going to see something really special,” Burness said. “Even if they don’t fully understand it, that’s okay, I don’t fully understand it. You don’t have to. This is one of the truly special and arguably unique resources in the country for doing this kind of work.”

Brittney can be reached at [email protected]