NCAR supercomputer center opens in Wyo.

CHEYENNE, Wyoming – The Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research officially opened its Wyoming supercomputing center today in Cheyenne, a building that houses one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers dedicated to the geosciences.

NCAR scientists and universities across the nation are launching a series of initial scientific projects on the center’s flagship, a 1.5-petaflop IBM supercomputer known as Yellowstone. These first projects focus on a wide range of Earth science topics, from atmospheric disturbances to subterranean faults, that will eventually help improve predictions of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and other natural hazards.

“This center will help transform our understanding of the natural world in ways that offer enormous benefits to society,´ said Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, or UCAR, which manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation, in a press statement. “Whether it’s better understanding tornadoes and hurricanes, or deciphering the forces that lead to geomagnetic storms, the Yellowstone supercomputer … will lead to improved forecasts and better protection for the public and our economy.”

Bogdan took part in today’s formal opening ceremony with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, NCAR director Roger Wakimoto and other political and scientific leaders.

Located in the North Range Business Park, near the intersection of Interstates 80 and 25, about 85 miles north of Boulder, the 153,000-square-foot supercomputing center will provide advanced computing services to scientists across the United States. Most researchers will interact with the center remotely, via a laptop or desktop computer and the Internet.

Cheyenne was able to lure the supercomputer center away from Boulder in 2007 in a bidding war that came down to power – electrical more than political.

UCAR’s Computational Information Systems Laboratory has operated supercomputers at NCAR’s Mesa Laboratory in Boulder since the 1960s, even though the building was not designed with supercomputing in mind. In recent years, new research questions have required more powerful computers to run increasingly complex simulations. NCAR looked for property near the Mesa Lab, but the city of Boulder couldn’t guarantee the price of power as Mesa was built out. Once built out, the facility was expected to need 25 megawatts, about one-fifth the power the city of Cheyenne needs every day to run, said Bill Gern, vice president for research and economic development at the University of Wyoming, in a statement on the university’s website.  The Mesa facility only had capabilities for 16 megawatts. “That’s why power was such an element,” Gern said. “The Mesa lab didn’t have it.”

“The need for this facility was pretty great,´ said Chet Lockard, UW’s associate director of facilities planning. “They (NCAR) outgrew their space at the Mesa facility. The design (of the facility in Cheyenne) was based on the frustration at the Mesa facility.”

To secure the supercomputing center, the state of Wyoming invested $20 million, the Wyoming Business Council kicked in $4.5 million to create infrastructure for the site, and UW agreed to provide $1 million annually for 20 years to UCAR to help pay for the supercomputer. In exchange, UW received access to 20 percent of the computer’s computational system annually.

“There were a lot of pros and cons at each site,” then-UCAR head Rick Anthes told the Business Report at the time, “but the No. 1 factor in my mind was money. Wyoming offered more money, cheaper construction costs and cheaper land.” The more money left in UCAR’s pocket meant more left over to buy supercomputing power, Anthes said, “and that’s our No. 1 goal.”

Ground was broken for the center in Cheyenne in June 2010.

In response to losing the supercomputer to Wyoming, Colorado groups formed CO-LABS Inc., a consortium of federal laboratories, universities, private companies, economic-development groups, chambers of commerce and state organizations. CO-LABS is dedicated “to build and maintain a tight connection between the labs and their communities for the purpose of continuing and enhancing the ability of Colorado to compete for innovative and sustainable, scientific and technical economic development opportunities.”

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