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GCN : January and February 2016
SUPERCOMPUTERS 18 GCN JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 • GCN.COM upercomputers are the supermodels of the IT world: sought after, larger than life, high intensity and with a career lifespan of about five years. But when the younger, faster set plugs in, the old is out. And with everyone focused on the latest models (pun intended), do those expensive — think multiyear contracts in the $50 mil- lion range — and still-viable computer systems get put out with the trash? The answer is yes — at least for the majority of them. The most efficient, secure and financially feasible way to dispose of old supercomputers is by using a computer wood chipper provided by contractors that specialize in IT asset disposi- tion. That is especially true for supercomputers with high- security data. Jeff Broughton, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center’s deputy for operations and systems de- partment head, said the center sends the actual disk on which the files are stored “to firms where they grind up the disk so that there is no chance of people coming in and tak- ing data off it.” Although the center does not have any high-security data, he added, officials do it out of “an abundance of caution.” So why don’t NERSC and other supercomputer-using agen- cies give the machine to someone who could still use it rather than destroy it? Broughton said agencies follow a multistep process to try to find the machines a new home, but it often doesn’t have a happy ending. The first possibility is to trade in the supercomputer when buying a replacement, which Broughton called the easiest and best method. If agencies are buying the next generation from the same manufacturer, they can “sometimes arrange to trade it in, and they can use the parts for spares for things that are out in the field,” he said. If that isn’t an option — as in the case of NERSC’s recently retired Hopper supercomputer, whose parts don’t jibe with the latest version Cray is producing — then agency IT man- agers move to the second strategy and repurpose anything they can use in-house. If the first two aren’t feasible, the third strategy is to put the old supercomputer into GSAXcess — the General Ser- vices Administration’s clearinghouse for distributing surplus government property. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center’s Hopper supercom- puter was retired in December 2015 and will likely face the same wood-chipper fate that most supercomputers do. Hopper will go through the standard process for finding a second home for su- percomputers that hold non-secure data, said Jeff Broughton, NERSC’s deputy for operations and systems department head. But most likely it won’t have any takers because Cray (Hopper ’s manu- facturer) has moved on to a new level of supercomputers. The one part of Hopper that is guar- anteed to find a new home is the image of Rear Adm. Grace Hopper that was displayed across the computer ’s panels. The late trailblazer in computer sciences is the machine’s namesake. “Hopper has become iconic for us, and her imagery is on the panels,” Broughton said. “We’ll keep those panels and put them on display in the new building.” Hopper is often cited as the person who coined the term “debugged” after finding a moth in a relay, and she has a long list of accomplishments. She was an admiral in the Navy, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale and was part of the group that created the first computer language compiler, which eventually led to Cobol. The computer named after her has had its own firsts. It was one of the first to use petaflop technology and the first such system NERSC had on its campus, said Jon Bashor, the center’s communica- tions manager. “Each time the supercomputing com- munity deploys a system at the next level of performance — whether megaflops, gigaflops, teraflops or petaflops — it’s a big milestone, setting a new level for overall performance and raising the bar,” he added. At any given time, the Hopper su- percomputer was host to about 6,000 researchers from around the country and overseas, and its petaflop technology shortened the “time to solution” for users, Bashor said. Researchers use supercomputers for a Hopper supercomputer, named after trailblazer, reaches end of the road FLICKR.COM/DEPARTMENTOFENERGY S 0216gcn_016-020.indd 18 2/3/16 11:58 AM
March and April 2016