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GCN : January and February 2016
PHOTOCREDITHERE SUPERCOMPUTERS which means serious labor is involved. “These computers take up whole rooms of space,” he said. “Let’s say one computer is 4,000 machines. That could be 100 computer racks. And let’s say you have to install a new hard drive in each, and it takes five minutes to do that and multiply that by 4,000 — all of a sudden that becomes a lot of hours.” And the same holds true when it comes to cabling and other peripheral systems. “There’s always the chance a cable breaks or the layout of a room isn’t the same, so the cable might not be the right length or the cooling system might be different.” The transition process can take two to three months. “We have rebuilt at least three computers with more than 1,000 machines in them, and it will take two months for a couple people to touch every com- puter and troubleshoot it,” he said. “And because the hard- ware is old and finicky, you run into issues that you might not have with a new computer.” Many people believe the ef- fort is worth it, however, Jacob- son said. “The primary purpose of PRObE is essentially to pro- vide a unique research tool at scale for the National Science Foundation, and that means that we provide our supercom- puters to researchers across the nation,” he added. And putting more supercom- puters into the field is also the key to understanding the next generation of computer-in- tensive research at a strategic level. “The PRObE project is trying to provide a large number of computers for the people who are looking into seeing what the next generation of large com- puters is going to look like,” Jacobson said. “It is much harder to do that if you have access to 10 computers rather than 100 computers.” • 20 GCN JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 • GCN.COM Does your supercomputer need a new home? If you want to avoid sending it to the wood chipper, here are your options: REPLACE Sometimes agencies can trade in an older supercomputer when they ’re buy- ing a new one from the same manu- facturer. According to Jeff Broughton of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, this is the easiest and best method. REPURPOSE When parts from different generations of supercomputers are not compat- ible — as in the case of NERSC’s recently retired Hopper supercomputer — agen- cies repurpose any parts they can use in-house. DONATE If you can’t replace or repurpose, the supercomputer heads to GSAXcess, the General Services Administration’s clear- inghouse for distributing surplus govern- ment property. The asset is first offered to other federal agencies, then to state and local governments, and finally to the public. Supercomputers “usually get put in a truck and [sent] to a big chipper and ground down to dust. And there are some people in government who think that isn’t a good thing because it is often a waste of money.... The computers are very powerful.” — AN DR EE JACOBSON, NEW MEXICO CONSORTIUM 0216gcn_016-020.indd 20 2/4/16 12:50 PM
March and April 2016