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Caltech Supercomputer Analyzes Earthquakes

Posted by inet - 2005-12-05

The California Institute of Technology said earlier this week that it has created the most powerful computer clusters in the academic world to unlock the mysteries of earthquakes. The $5.8 million parallel computing project was made possible by gifts from Dell, Myricom, Intel, and the National Science Foundation.

Caltech's Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences' new Geosciences Computational Facility will house a 2,048-processor supercomputer in the basement of the Seeley G. Mudd Building of Geophysics and Planetary Science on campus. "With this many processors and memory you can really look at problems in much higher resolution and greater detail," said Jeroen Tromp, McMillan Professor of Geophysics and director of the Institute's Seismology Lab at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Tromp said Caltech wants to look at hundreds, even thousands, of earthquakes to simulate the effects from available data to interpret information about Earth's structure, what the Earth looks like on the inside, as well as the source of earthquakes.

The supercomputer, which runs computational geosciences applications, looks into the Earth the same way a computerized axial tomography (CT scan) looks into the body—slice by slice.

In simulations involving tens of millions of operations per second, seismic waves are reproduced from one slice to the next, as they speed up, slow down, and change direction according to the earth's characteristics. The computer analyzes the strength, direction, and movement of seismic waves, which could lead to safer designs for homes, businesses, bridges, and other structures.

Near real-time simulation is something Caltech is implementing as researchers work toward on-demand computing and grid applications. If there is an earthquake in southern California of greater than 3.5 magnitude on the Richter scale, the network detects it and determines an initial location. That data automatically triggers a simulation on the machine, and in less than an hour Caltech scientists can have animation and synthetic seismograms to share with scientists and media.

"We are trying to set up this seamless process, so every time we have an event digital information is quickly available," Tromp said. "We are also working toward enabling scientists to request simulations by designing a Web portal where users can request a simulation and within a day have the results."

The computer hardware began arriving in early August and took about two months to be implemented. It fills long rows of black racks in the facility, each containing about 35 nodes. Massive air conditioning units line an entire wall of the 20-by-80-foot room to re-circulate and chill the air.

Some 500 kilowatts of power and 90 tons of air conditioning are needed to operate and cool the hardware--enough kilowatts to power 350 average households. Miles of optical-fiber cables tie the processors together into a working cluster that went online in September. The Dell equipment consists of 1,024 dual Dell PowerEdge 1850 servers that were pre-assembled. Dell Services completed the installation.

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