Travel just few miles west of bustling Cheyenne, Wyoming, a you’ll find yourself in big-sky country. Tall-grass plains line the highway, snow-packed peaks pierce the sky, and round-edged granite formations jut out of the ground. But in this bucolic scene sits an alien building: a blocky, almost pre-fab structure with a white rotunda, speckled with dozens of windows that look out onto the grounds.
Inside, it’s home to two supercomputers that focus on the vast landscape above.This building belongs to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which spends money from the National Science Foundation to learn about things like atmospheric chemistry, climate, weather, and wildfires. That kind of research didn’t always require supercomputers. But today, the kinds of three-dimensional, detail-oriented models that scientists need—as they churn through everything from wind calculations to simulations of the sun—require so much processor power that no desktop will do. So in January, the center commissioned a brand-new supercomputer here called Cheyenne, the 20th fastest machine on the planet.
Cheyenne isn’t alone out here in the wild. Turns out, Wyoming’s climate, tax code, and utility infrastructure make it appealing to people who want to put a whole lot of processing units in really big rooms. Right down the road, Microsoft runs a massive data center. And more are likely on the way, as the state’s shiny new facilities and financial incentives catch the eyes of other businesses.
Safe from Space Weather
Cheyenne’s first working orders are to compute 11 different projects, a mix of ideas from the atmospheric research center and outside academics—only the ones who can handle this many CPUs at once. “It’s a fighter plane,” says Gary New, head of operations. “You have to know how to fly it.”
Most of the projects are climate-related—improving seasonal forecasts, understanding weather extremes, seeing how smoke affects clouds, and digitally trying out geoengineering. Two of them, though, deal with the potentially disastrous effects of weather from way beyond Earth’s atmosphere: space weather.
Sometimes, the sun becomes violent and sends forth solar flares and coronal mass ejections, in which fast-moving particles, radiation, and magnetic fields spew into space. Extreme solar activity, unfortunately aimed, can take down earthly communications and navigation satellites. It can also cause massive blackouts. Think about everything that draws electricity—lights, phones, refrigerators, city water utilities, medical equipment, banking systems, tabletop drum kits—and what it would mean if none of that worked. This is why people become preppers.
But never fear (OK, fear a little): Scientist Matthias Rempel is using Cheyenne to see the nitty-gritty of the sun’s magnetic field and how its sometimes leads to big eruptions. And physicist Michael Shay will take Cheyenne’s helm to look at plasma turbulence and the explosions of magnetic energy that may lead to coronal mass ejections. By getting at the physics that makes the sun tick (tick BOOM), Rempel’s and Shay’s work improves predictions—and so preparedness.
That work wouldn’t have been possible on the center’s first supercomputer, the Cray-1A from 1977. So quaint, it could now be bested by your smartphone. NCAR brought another supercomputer, Yellowstone, online in Wyoming in 2012. But even that one has just one-third the power of Cheyenne, with its 5.34 petaflops, and in early 2018, NCAR will decommission five-year-old Yellowstone.
That’s normal. They run the systems pretty much 24/7. Imagine if you did that to your car starting in 2012 and didn’t stop till 2017. A) You’d be somewhere weird. B) You’d need a new car. So six months after NCAR moves in with any given supercomputer, it starts to think about the next one.
It’s not an accident that the atmospheric research center chose to build a home in Wyoming. It has the fifth-coldest average temperature in the country, so they could save on keeping the supercomputer chill. And the low humidity, while it aggravates aging skin, makes that natural chilling more efficient. Electricity also comes cheaper than it does in 46 other states, lowering those bills even more.
And Wyoming offers computer-users synthetic benefits. Regional and nation-crossing fiber converges near Cheyenne, so the internet’s spine is strong. And Wyoming has the most business-friendly tax climate in the nation, along with initiatives like the Managed Data Center Cost Reduction Grant, the Data Center Recruitment Fund, and special tax exemptions.
So after NCAR set up its homebase, it was rather natural that Microsoft came to the same business center, expanded thrice—including a $200 million expansion in 2015—and whipped up the first zero-carbon data center, which keeps its lights on with fuel cells fed by biogas. EchoStar Communications, a digital broadcaster, announced it would build a 77,000-square-foot data center here in 2010. And Wyoming-bred Green House Data finished a $35 million expansion in 2014.
Wyoming hopes more data-driven organizations are on the way—and in Yellowstone and Cheyenne’s room, there’s space to grow. The center can also add more modules without uprooting all the electrical and temperature-control infrastructure. So in a few months, when NCAR starts thinking about its next-next-supercomputer, they can focus on what Western name to give it and not what state to put it in.
While the center dreams of the shiny supercomputers of 2022, Cheyenne will keep whirring. Its first round of research ends this month. The two solar-science projects will have accounted for about 16 percent of its core hours. Shay and Rempel, data in hand, will figure out what those bytes mean for the sun—perhaps helping keep the lights on at your house and the supercomputer spinning.