Environment Canada weathers data storm with supercomputer

Environment Canada has always been at the cutting edge of Canadian computing and this week it 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.”

“This is something that we could not do before because we did not have the power on the (NEC) supercomputer to produce those simulations fast enough to be useful,” he said. “The more power we have…the more sophisticated the models are going to be, the more accurate (the predictions)…and the better the services.”

The “beast” is a cluster of IBM Corp. 1.3GHz pSeries 690 Turbos. There are a total of 960 individual processors in 30 interconnected servers producing 2.5 Teraflops of power, 1.8TB of 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 in his mind that the increased horsepower, which allows for the smaller grids, is a dramatic improvement.

“There is no shadow of a doubt that…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 simulations of the atmosphere. In the case of the latter they 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 community as they are the ones with continual high performance needs, and as such, can justify the cost. 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.

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