University supercomputer undergoes upgrade

Blue Waters, the supercomputer housed within the University’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, is being upgraded with additional hardware that will increase the power and performance of the system.

According to a press release, the upgrade adds 12 additional Cray XK racks, each with 96 nodes. This will increase the system’s peak performance to over 13 petaflops, or 13 quadrillion calculations per second, from its previous peak of 11.6 petaflops.

Bill Gropp, computer science professor and principal investigator at Blue Waters, said the extra 12 racks lead to an immense amount of power. 

“Each node is over a teraflop in performance. A teraflop is 1,012 operations per second,” he said. “Those additional 12 racks by themselves represent more computing power than you see in most computing installations.”

In computing, the term “FLOPS” (FLoating Operations Per Second) refers to a measure of computing performance. 

“Your laptop can probably do billions of those calculations per second — maybe 40 billion, maybe 50 billion, but tens of billions,” said Trish Barker, NCSA spokeswoman. “When you compare that to Blue Waters, we’re not talking about billions anymore, we’re talking about quadrillions ... It’s hugely more powerful than your laptop.”

The upgrade came as part of a demand from researchers for more computing power. 

“One of the things we have seen just in the few short months that Blue Waters was operating prior to the upgrade is that people are really taking a lot of advantage of a particular type of processor called a GPU, or graphics processing unit,” Barker said. “So the new hardware we’ve added brings additional GPUs into the supercomputer, and we think that will really be an asset for the research teams.”

Gropp said the upgrade increases the part of the machine that has the GPUs by over 30 percent, thus increasing the total power of the machine by 10 percent. 

“That means that more people or projects will be able to get their work done in the same amount of time,” he said. “We’ve also got the ability to do some things that are even larger than what we were looking at before.”

The upgrade, which was started in late July, is currently in “friendly user” mode. For the next week, science projects are running on the system to find and address any problems or glitches, Barker said. After this testing period, Blue Waters will be back in full production.

Eleanor can be reached at

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