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Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research about to get shiny new supercomputers

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For 46 years, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has had a supercomputing center at its Mesa Laboratory headquarters in Boulder. This week, NCAR broke ground on a new facility.

The center uses supercomputers -- which can process 76 trillion operations per second, says NCAR head of Media Relations David Hosansky -- to try to understand complex atmospheric processes like climate change.

Although NCAR's headquarters will stay in Boulder, that site had run out of room, so the new center is in Cheyenne. "These systems, as they've gotten more and more powerful, they require a lot of energy to run and keep cool," explains Krista Laursen, NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center project manager. "We were really at the point where the infrastructure at the Mesa site was maxed out." And because the Mesa lab is in an "environmentally sensitive" area, NCAR was simply not able to get enough power to meet its needs without new construction. The existing infrastructure at the Mesa lab will still be used, she says -- just for different purposes.

After a lengthy bidding process, NCAR went with Wyoming in part because it can harness environmental conditions there to cut down on power usage: NCAR boasts that the Cheyenne site will be 90 percent more energy-efficient than other supercomputing centers. "One of the things the climatology up here in Cheyenne allows for is what we call 'free cooling,'" Laursen says. "You have a huge amount of heat that's generated from these high-processor count systems."

In most supercomputing centers, that heat would get whisked away essentially by giant air-conditioners; in Wyoming, NCAR plans to use Wyoming's wind and cold to do the air-conditioning job. The center will also capture the heat generated by the computers to warm user-occupied areas.

Not that there will be too many users on-site. The supercomputers at the new center will be hooked up to a super-high-capacity fiber-optic network that will beam their operations anywhere and everywhere. "Our users around the world, they're not even going to notice the facility's moved," Laursen promises.

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