Niwa to share super-quick supercomputer

BY PAUL GORMAN - SCIENCE REPORTER
Last updated 05:00 01/09/2009

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The owner of New Zealand's fastest computer guarantees it will be available to other research organisations.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's (Niwa) new $12.7 million IBM Power 575 is being touted as the most powerful climate-research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, and the 14th most powerful computer in the world.

Housed at Niwa's Greta Point premises in Wellington, it will be able to perform 34 trillion calculations a second, about the same as 7000 top-of-the-range laptops working simultaneously.

An upgrade in two years will allow it to do almost double that, by which stage it will weigh 18.8 tonnes, including water for cooling, require 900 kilowatts of electricity to run and have 6900 gigabytes of memory.

It will be about 100 times faster than Niwa's existing Cray supercomputer.

Niwa chief executive John Morgan said the computer would make it easier to carry out complex research into climate change, provide more accurate environmental forecasts and give earlier warnings of the effects of severe weather.

The computer was expected to arrive by the end of the year and be working by next April.

Other research institutions would be able to use the new computer, including the state-owned enterprise MetService, Morgan said.

"If they need it, it's a no-brainer, they will have it.

"We didn't buy this new supercomputer on the basis of it becoming a money-maker for Niwa. If it does, that's another story. We bought it to advance science capability and improve New Zealand's lot.

"It's going to create some full-time jobs and generate a tremendous amount of capacity to do more. It will allow New Zealand to develop state-of-the-art skills around supercomputing, too."

Research, Science and Technology Minister Wayne Mapp said it was time for the Cray to be replaced.

He confirmed the new supercomputer would be available for other research organisations to use.

"I'm sure it will be for a fee, however, but yes, it's a national resource."

MetService chief executive Paul Reid said the service was given advance notice of the deal and fully supported it.

It did not have any current need to use the supercomputer.

"If we were to need such computing power, I am in no doubt that the two organisations could come to a commercial agreement regarding use."

However, Blue Skies Weather director Tony Trewinnard said it would only benefit the country if all agencies involved in forecasting, including private firms, could use the supercomputer.

"It's good to see the Government giving taxpayers' money for New Zealand to get a world-class supercomputer which will clearly have major benefits in the areas of environmental prediction. (But) it's a shame that the use of that facility is locked away inside a commercially focused business.

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"In the 10 years since the first supercomputer was purchased, Niwa has done some fantastic work looking at how day-to-day weather forecasting can be improved, yet organisations like Blue Skies and MetService have been left to do their own work to improve the quality of the weather forecasts New Zealanders use day-by-day."

- The Press

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