$25 million supercomputer unveiled at Wright-Patterson

The Air Force Research Laboratory machine is the 7th most powerful supercomputer in the U.S.


A $25 million Air Force Research Laboratory supercomputer has debuted as the most powerful in the Department of Defense.

The high-powered computer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, dubbed Spirit after the stealthy B-2 bomber, has the capacity to calculate 1,500 trillion calculations every second, which places the machine as the seventh most powerful supercomputer in the United States and 14th in the world, Air Force officials said.

“This is just a barn burner of a computer,” said Maj. Gen. William N. McCasland, AFRL commander.

The computer will simulate experiments or research too costly or too environmentally dangerous to replicate in the real world, McCasland said.

The high-performance computing machine made a public debut Monday at a ceremony inside the recently opened $33 million Information Technology Complex at Wright-Patterson. Some 2,000 Department of Defense users across the globe will have access to the U.S.-made supercomputer, known as SGI Altix Ice X and built by SGI Inc. in Chippewa Falls, Wisc.

“This is really a red letter day for us,” said Jeff Graham, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Supercomputer Resource Center. “We’re ushering in a whole new era of supercomputer capability for our customers.”

The supercomputer exceeded AFRL’s performance parameters by more than 25 percent of expectations, he said.

Researchers from every branch of the military, and other federal agencies, will put “Spirit” to use to explore problems perplexing scientists, said Lloyd Slonaker, chief of the advanced technology branch at the AFRL Defense Supercomputing Resource Center.

“We can try different things with this that would cost millions of dollars just to try once,” he said.

The supercomputer will virtually research and test the capabilities of weapon systems, such as bomb detonations and how cargo aircraft parachute supplies to earth. It’s expected to also delve into scientific research, such as the exploration of the hidden world of subatomic particles to hurricane forecasting, he said.

Wright-Patterson researchers, for example, used another supercomputer, the Cray XE6, to study airflow over a dragonfly’s wings in the hopes the knowledge will be useful to create micro unmanned aerial vehicles.

The high-density Ice X covers 9,000 square feet and weighs more than 30 tons, Slonaker estimated. A water-pump system cools the mainframe to prevent overheating of hyper-fast electronics and thousands of miles of copper wiring and fiber optic cables.

The futuristic machine became operational about two months ago. “We’re still ironing out some of the bugs,” he said.

The supercomputer is the second at Wright-Patterson, and a third is planned for the ITC next year, Slonaker said.

AFRL typically keeps a supercomputer four to five years in the ever changing world of high-speed computing, he said. Once AFRL acquires a replacement, the older technology is shipped to other Defense Department branches, federal government agencies or universities.


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