Unleash the Power: DOD Supercomputing Resource Center achieves four petaflops

By Joyce P. Brayboy, ARL Public Affairs

When Lila Todd Butler graduated from Temple University in 1941 as the only female mathematician in a class of 1,600, she had no idea she would be one of the computer programmers of ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer.

Butler retired from the Ballistics Research Laboratory in 1979 after having written the book of routines that ran the ENIAC and having dedicated her life to developing scientific computer languages.

When she and five other women who had worked at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s predecessor laboratory, BRL, returned nearly 20 years later for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for what we know today as the U.S. Army Research Laboratory Defense Supercomputing Resource Center in 1996, it marked a new era of high-performance computing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

In 1996, they were asking questions like, who controls the Internet?

“The most powerful computer when I came to ARL, had four central processing units, the newest Cray XC-40 has more than 100,000 CPUs. The machines are getting more powerful and larger physically,” said Lee Ann Brainard, deputy director at center.

The DSRC Cray XC-40, was listed as number 19 on the world’s top 500 list of most powerful supercomputers last year. “The Cray gives five times more computing power and 10 times more memory than we had just two years earlier,” she said.

The supercomputer consists of 101,312 computer cores, 32 general-purpose computing on graphics processing units, or GPGPUs, and 411 terabytes of memory, and provides 3.77 petaflops of peak computing capability, she said.

“We empower researchers to solve the most difficult military operational challenges through advanced computing,” said Dr. Raju Namburu, ARL DSRC director. “DOD scientists and engineers use the different aspects of high performance computing to design and develop better Army materiel systems at a faster pace to increase the nation’s security.

“High performance computing based predictive simulations offers virtual testing of complex experiments. At the ARL DSRC Army vehicle animations could be rotated, taken back and forward in time, manipulated and improved with fraction of time it takes to conduct a series of experiments,” he said. “You also are left with more interesting data to work with in determining what just happened, why, and how to improve.”

At a place like ARL, where the nature of the work is exploring technology for Soldiers 10 or 20 years from now, quantum, bio- and neuron- based computing, are on the horizon for the deep future, Kendall said.

ARL is always looking to emerging computing architectures that could help not only to keep up with growth of the technology, but also to deploy power-aware multi-petaflop computing capability on the battlefield,” Namburu said.

Brainard expects the next upgrade for the ARL DSRC to start in Fiscal Year 2016. The DOD High-Performance Computing Modernization Program typically invests in supercomputing capabilities at the facility every two years.

As Brainard stood in a large empty room, she said it will be the home of the system to come, which is prepared over a year before the system is expected.

Each biennial upgrade comes with a set of challenges. In 2012, it was puzzling to figure out how the center was going to be able to maintain its daily operations while moving to a new building. They had to forecast the expansion needs for that upgrade for years to come. In 2014, the logistics of a partnership with the Installation Management Command was the hurdle. ARL partnered with IMCOM to add a 2,000-ton water plant to keep the systems watercooled in a way that uses less energy than using both air- and water-cooling together, Kendall said.

“Forty-two hundred gallons of fluid run through the pump every minute to maintain the temperature for the machinery,” he said.

When you look at the massive machines and the three-or-four car garage equivalent space that holds the machine’s cooling system, it is hard to imagine getting this capability closer to operational theater, but over the next 20 year it is the laboratory’s goal to provide 100 petaflop computing power in the battlespace.

“A [petaflop-capable] machine is not something we could transport on a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV, into theater soon,” Brainard said. “But in time …”

The power of high-performance computing brings ideas that were unheard 20 years ago into the realm of possibility for scientists and engineers, including HPC simulation-based design of novel materials from molecular scale to continuum scale, she said.

A molecular dynamics program from Sandia National Laboratories called Large-scale Atomic/Molecular Massively Parallel Simulator, or LAMMPS, is an example of advanced software that takes advantage of the ARL DSRC petaflop computational power. Macromolecular scientists use the program to look closely at dynamic properties of materials, such as polymers that affect Soldier protection, said Tanya Chantawansri, ARL materials scientist.

ARL’s supercomputing reached its first petaflop in 2012, and today the HPCMP’s aggregate supercomputing capability across the DOD is more than 26 petaflops. A petaflop is the ability of a computer to do one quadrillion floating point operations per second, or FLOPs.

According to the HPCM website, they more than doubled the aggregate DOD supercomputing capability during the 2014 round of upgrades.

“The large leaps are harder to sustain without emerging processing trends,” Kendall said. “The machine’s performance is also harder to access as we grow.”

For a long time ARL had a unique computing ability. “We were one of the first 50 websites in existence, while there are billions of websites today. But as technology proliferates, everyone around the world has greater access. It makes having a lead advantage become more critical, and harder,” Kendall said.

The toughest challenges are yet to come. “To deploy and leverage multi-petaflop computing power on the battlefield will be the ultimate challenge,” Kendall said.

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This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on Future Computing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army’s premier provider of materiel readiness–technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection and sustainment–to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.