UAF purchases supercomputer believed to be state's largest

Mike Dunham

A new computer, assumed to be the biggest in Alaska, should start crunching numbers this summer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Arctic Region Supercomputing Center.

The Cray XK6m supercomputer -- big enough to have its own name, "Fish" -- will be able to perform nearly 42 trillion calculations per second.

ARSC's current supercomputer runs at about 75 percent of that speed and is housed in a dozen 19-inch standard cabinets. The new computer will occupy two such cabinets (which are more like 2-feet wide, 7-feet high and 4-feet deep) with one additional cabinet for auxiliary systems.

"It will let us do things bigger, better and faster," said ARSC director Greg Newby. "It can do in a day what a normal computer would take years to do."

The 41.75 teraflop capacity (teraflops are a measure of speed) will help study and predict complex weather, climate, hydrology, permafrost and oceanic systems in the Arctic, Newby said.

"A researcher working on an ocean model, calculating salinity, temperature, ice cover and other things that affect fish, can solve the problem faster by using this computer," he said. "Also, she could run a bigger problem."

Scientists make such evaluations by dividing an area into a grid, processing the data from each "cell" and combining the information into a whole, Newby explained. With the bigger computer, researchers can create a finer grid.

"It's like with a camera, the higher number of pixels, the better the clarity," he said. "This lets us crank up the resolution for better clarity."

Fish gets its name from the expectation that it will be applied to studies regarding Alaska fisheries and water resources. The colorful cabinet art, designed by UAF art student Yumi Kawaguchi, reflects the life cycle of salmon, Newby said.

ARSC has a long history of working with Cray. The company, which recently relocated its headquarters in Seattle, Wash., is said to be the largest firm in the world exclusively dedicated to supercomputing.

"I don't think we've ever not had a Cray," said Newby. "We've had a partnership with them since we opened in 1993. And we're one of the first purchasers of the new model."

The cost of the Cray, $455,557, was made possible with grants from funding sources including the Pacific Area Climate Monitoring and Analysis Network -- or PACMAN.

Fish is expected to arrive at UAF in June and, after a period of "acceptance testing," be ready for users in July, Newby said.\

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News