Environment Canada weathers data storm

Environment Canada, always at the cutting edge of Canadian computing, recently celebrated the first anniversary of its latest supercomputer acquisition, one that allows it to slice and dice atmospheric data at a level only dreamed of a few years ago.

Previously, for weather forecasting purposes, data was gather from individual, 24-kilometre by 24-kilometre, atmospheric grids, explained Jean-Guy Desmarais, director of the development branch of the National Meteorological Service of Canada, an arm of Environment Canada. To increase forecasting capabilities the grids needed to be smaller, but the previous supercomputer, designed by NEC Corp. and the fastest in the country at the time, was incapable of handling the calculations in a meaningful amount of time.

With the new “beast,” as Desmarais likes to call it, the atmosphere is divided into 15-kilometre grids. Instead of 28 levels of readings over each grid — from the ground to 100,000 ft. — there are 58. “We have a much better representation…of the atmosphere,” he said. “We have better accuracy in predicting rain…and snow.”

Because of the immense power needed, Environment Canada needed to buy a shared memory supercomputer. A 48-hour weather simulation that takes 35 minutes on the new machine would take a month to run on today’s most powerful desktop, he said.

“No one is interested, obviously, in having a two-day forecast after a month.” Even most grids of interconnected high-end servers are incapable of handling the interactive modelling necessary for weather forecasting since the memory is not shared.

The “beast” that does the job in 35 minutes is a cluster of IBM Corp. 1.3GHz pSeries 690 Turbos. There are a total of 936 individual processors in 30 interconnected servers producing 2.5 Teraflops of power, 1.8TB of shared memory and 7.63TB of storage. According to the Top 500 Supercomputer list run by the Universities of Mannheim and Tennessee, it is the 74th most powerful in the world. It is also 2.5 times faster than the old NEC machine.

Desmarais said Environment Canada has yet to measure exactly how much better the calculations are with the new supercomputer since the most recent software was only installed in May and there is not yet enough empirical data to accurately quantify the difference. But there is no question that the increased horsepower, which allows for smaller grids, is a dramatic improvement, he said.

“We have an improvement that was probably bigger than what we have had over the past three years,” he said.

Asked why it has taken a year for Environment Canada to celebrate its acquisition, Desmarais pointed to the complexity of supercomputer installs. “We wanted to demonstrate its capabilities,” he said. In fact one piece of analytical software, scheduled to be installed in the coming months, is designed to look into both air quality and climate change by running atmospheric simulations. In the case of the latter these are designed to go 100 or even 200 years into the future, Desmarais said. “We could not do that with the previous computer.”

Kim Devooght, vice-president, federal public sector, with IBM Canada Ltd., said most supercomputers in Canada are still being bought by government organizations, biotech and the academic communities as these are the ones with daily high-performance needs. There is a move, he said, for supercomputing to move into a utility model where compute cycles are purchased as needed. “But it is the early days,” Devooght said.

There are some organizations on that path today but they are almost entirely in the public sector. One is WestGrid, a high performance computing network connecting seven institutions in western Canada.

“We do not charge anybody for anything (the grid is supported by grants) and we’ve been through those (cost per cycle) models,” said WestGrid’s Brain Unger, a professor of computer science at the University of Calgary. Alhough WestGrid does allow some private companies to use its computer power, it doesn’t “support anything you’d truly call commercial,” he explained.

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