Swiss supercomputer aims to predict mountain weather with help of GPUs

Nvidia's GPUs provide much better application performance, the Swiss National Supercomputing Center said

The Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS) is going to upgrade its supercomputer with Nvidia GPUs to more accurately predict the weather in the steep mountains of the Swiss Alps.

By upgrading the Cray XC30 system, the CSCS wants to enable national weather service MeteoSwiss to accurately predict the weather in small valleys that can't be covered by the current models, said Thomas Schoenemeyer, associate director of the Technology Integration team of the CSCS, on Wednesday.

"Switzerland has one of the most complex topographies in the world," he said. Steep mountains can cause a difference in weather patterns from valley to valley, making it very hard to make accurate predictions, he said. More computing power is needed to tackle the problem.

The supercomputer is called "Piz Daint", named after one of Switzerland's mountain peaks.

Over the course of the year, CSCS will extend the computer's current 750 teraflops computing power to reach speeds that Schoenemeyer expects will be at least one petaflop or more.

Using a combination of CPUs (central processing units) and GPUs (graphics processing units) leads to better application performance, Schoenemeyer said. "Meteo codes run better on a combination," said Schoenemeyer, adding that using a combination of processing units is also more energy efficient.

The new supercomputer will use NVIDIA Tesla K20X GPU accelerators to "dramatically expand the breadth and depth of the center's research and discovery in climate and weather modeling," as well as a host of other fields, such as astrophysics, materials science and life science, according to an Nvidia blog post announcing the plan.

The CSCS's upgraded Piz Daint will also be used to run 30 slightly different weather forecasting models simultaneously to get a more accurate average result, Schoenemeyer said. In addition, the Center for Climate Systems Modeling (C2SM) in Zurich plans to use the computer to predict climate change in the next 100 years, he added.

Supercomputing company Cray was awarded US$32 million to upgrade the CSCS's system, it announced.

When the upgrade and expansion is completed, Piz Daint will be the first petascale supercomputer in Switzerland and the fasted hybrid GPU accelerated supercomputer in Europe, said Schoenemeyer. "But that is easy to say, Europe is lacking power," he said.

The fastest supercomputer in the world is the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Most of this Cray XK7 system's compute power also comes from Tesla K20X GPU accelerators. The Titan executed 17.59 petaflops during a Linpack benchmark test, according to the supercomputer Top500 list published in November last year.

CSCS's supercomputer will become operational in early 2014, and will use water from nearby Lake Lugano for cooling, Schoenemeyer said. The heated water will be reused to heat the CSCS's building.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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