Adding 'super' to 'computer'

By Andrea Gawrylewski

The International Headquarters of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Monroeville, Pa., is a black glass-paneled fortress dedicated to nuclear energy research. All except the basement, that is, where underneath the formidable security check-in desk, and the two towers of labs and offices and sunlit hallways, more than 4,000 Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) computer processors whir away, undisturbed.

In the basement, BigBen, the Cray XT3 supercomputer, ticks away about 21 trillion calculations per second. It's dark, and it's as loud as the engine room of a cargo ship; anyone inside must shout to be barely heard. The room is approximately the size of a hockey rink and just about as cold; pipes under the floor carry water at 9°C (48° F) to keep the computers from overheating. (As it stands, the...

The machines are always hungry.

The machines are always hungry. At any given second the 21 eight-foot cabinets that make up BigBen's processing network consume about 320 kilowatts (kW) of energy. (The average American home burns about 1.1 kW in the same time period.) Together, the computers in the Westinghouse basement rack up an electric bill of $100,000 each month. They carry an insurance coverage of about $100 million.

Lynn Layman, PSC's program manager, oversees the super computers at Westinghouse.
© Mark Bolster Photography

Even though the Westinghouse building is BigBen's home, most employees working at the energy center will never even see the basement, and none use the computing power of BigBen. Everything in that dark, cold room belongs to the PSC, a squat brick building 14 miles away.

PSC is one of five supercomputing centers originally funded by the National Science Foundation in the 1980s to stay competitive with Europe, which was using supercomputing in energy research at institutions such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Until then, most supercomputers were the domain of the US Department of Defense, which used them for weapons research. Then came a 1982 report by a panel chaired by mathematician Peter Lax, which said that other countries were investing more in supercomputing than was the United States, thus jeopardizing its long-held position as world leader in the field.

The NSF rapidly ramped up its attention to high-end computing, declaring that supercomputers should be more broadly available to civilian researchers. In this burst of enthusiasm, the agency created PSC, which last year celebrated the 20-year anniversary of its first NSF grant. Today, the NSF still supports PSC - its original grant was renewed last year for $9 million - and two other supercomputing centers, including one at the University of California, San Diego, and one at the University of Illinois. Today, nearly 2,000 researchers across the country use BigBen for their research, which ranges from economics to astrophysics to cell biology.

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