March 12, 1999

Berkeley Lab Science Beat

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The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) this year marks its 25th anniversary of providing scientific computing resources to scientists studying problems such as combustion, global climate change, fusion energy, computational biology, materials science, high-energy and nuclear physics, and environmental remediation.

The center started out as the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Computer Center and was later renamed the National Magnetic Fusion Energy Computer Center and the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center. These changes reflect the expanding scope of research conducted using its facilities.

Originally established solely to support magnetic fusion research, NERSC helped pioneer many of the computing practices taken for granted today. These include remote access by thousands of users, high-performance data storage and retrieval, and providing online documentation and around-the-clock support for users. The one thing that remains constant is that there is much more demand for computer time than is available to be allocated.

"Through the years, the center was really a model for how a national supercomputing facility should be organized," says Horst Simon, head of the Lab's NERSC Division. "For example, the San Diego Supercomputing Center was established by early users of the magnetic fusion computer facility and patterned after our center, as were the other National Science Foundation centers. In 1996, we reinvented the concept of the supercomputing center to provide intellectual resources in addition to computer cycles " and this model is again being emulated by others."

Today NERSC is home to seven Cray supercomputers and is used by more than 2,500 researchers at national laboratories, universities and industry. The forerunner of NERSC was officially established in March of 1974 with the creation of an unclassified computer center at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The center was originally established as the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Computer Center to support magnetic fusion research, and went on line in July 1974 with a borrowed computer " a Control Data Corp. 6600. That computer had a peak performance of less than one megaflop, or one million calculations per second. By comparison, NERSC's most powerful current machine, the 640-processor Cray T3E-900, has a peak performance capacity of 621 billion calculations per second.

Early users gained access via four acoustic modems (users dialed a number, waited for a tone, snuggled the phone handset into a rubbery cradle and hoped for a good connection). Data was transmitted at 110 bits per second. Today, the Energy Sciences Network, or ESnet, provides NERSC users with a secure network connection capable of transmitting up to 155 million bits per second.

The center was soon renamed the National Magnetic Fusion Energy Computer Center. Its machine room has been home to the pioneering Cray 1 and Cray 2 supercomputers, as well as a Cray C90. In 1990, to reflect the center's growing role in supporting a wider range of research, it was renamed the National Energy Research Supercomputing Center.

With DOE's decision to reinvent the center at Berkeley Lab in 1996 by adding intellectual resources to the computing resources, the name was modified yet again to the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. Today, the center features a 640-processor Cray T3E-900 for massively parallel computing and six Cray J90s for vector processing. Its data archive can hold up to 350 Terabytes of scientific data.

"Whatever its name, NERSC has long been a model for other institutions wishing to establish supercomputing centers," said William McCurdy, who co-founded the Ohio Supercomputer Center in 1988 and became director of NERSC in 1991. McCurdy, a physical chemist and the associate laboratory director for Computing Sciences, adds: "The story of NERSC is really that of modern computational science in the U.S. From pioneering large-scale simulations to developing the early time sharing systems for supercomputers, much of the action has always been in this center."