Wright-Patterson Unveils One of World's Largest Supercomputers

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

A $30 million supercomputer among the fastest in the world and the largest within the Defense Department was unveiled Monday at the Air Force Research Laboratory, the third ultra high-speed computing machine added in less than three years at Wright-Patterson.

Dubbed Thunder, the SGI Ice X supercomputer built in Chippewa Falls, Wisc., joined two others -- nicknamed Spirit and Lighting -- in the ever-more crowded 11,000-square-foot supercomputer lab inside the Information Technology Complex.

The latest supercomputer, in use since October, has tackled complex simulations encountered in hypersonic flight and tested the limits of a futuristic electromagnetic rail gun.

Thunder is the third multi-million-dollar supercomputer to launch at Wright-Patt since 2012.

"Three short years ago we came in here, and it looked like a big ballroom with nothing in it, and now we're tight on space" said Lloyd Slonaker, chief of the advanced technologies section at AFRL's DoD Supercomputer Resource Center. "That's a good thing."

The latest machine can calculate about 3.1 petaFLOPS, or 3,126,240,000,000,000 floating point operations per second, according to AFRL. Among the ranks of supercomputers, it's the 21st fastest in the world, researchers said.

AFRL's growing supercomputer lab has the largest total computer power among five Defense Department high performance computing centers around the nation. Wright-Patterson will add a fourth supercomputer at the center in 2017.

Tests can often be carried out at less cost and more safely through computer simulations than real-world testing, researchers said.

The military has put supercomputers to use to design futuristic weapons, conduct developmental testing, operational analysis and climate and ocean modeling, among other priorities, AFRL said.

"We're really getting to the point where we can replicate the testing that we do in the laboratories or on the test stands in structural analysis," said AFRL Executive Director C. Douglas Ebersole.

Aerospace engineer Susan Cox-Stouffer used computational fluid dynamic simulations on supercomputers to test the X-51 Waverider, a hypersonic vehicle that reached more than five times the speed of sound in flight tests over the Pacific.

"You can't design them on the back of an envelope," she said. "It takes a lot of simulations."

John Nehrbass, a senior research scientist at Wright State Research Institute who works at AFRL, said supercomputers have analyzed ground radar images to ferret out targets or spot objects in real time.

"This is really state of the art," he said. "It's where we're going in the future."

Thunder is named after the P-47 Thunderbolt of World War II and the A-10 Thunderbolt II, an Air Force ground attack jet that has flown for years in combat in the Middle East.

AFRL's lab has a $20.8 million Cray XC-30, nicknamed Lighting after the F-35 joint strike fighter, and a $24 million SGI Altix Ice X, named Spirit after the B-2 stealth bomber.

The supercomputer lab needs thousands of gallons of water pumped in to cool the heat the machines generate. The facility's four chillers could each cool hundreds of homes, said Tim Sell, a computer engineer who tracks the maintenance needs of the lab.

The supercomputers use "the same parts as your laptop at home, just thousands of them," he said.

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