This article is published in the March 2008 issue.

National Center for Supercomputing Applications Powers Scientific Breakthroughs

This is another in a series of CRN articles describing the activities of CRA’s government and industry laboratory members. Others are posted at:

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) is a unique partnership of the University of Illinois, the state of Illinois, and the federal government. For more than two decades, the center has aided scientists and engineers across the country with powerful computers, innovative technologies and tools, and the knowledge and dedication of its expert staff. Investment in NCSA continues to yield concrete dividends for scientists, government, industry, education, and society.

NCSA has consistently been at the forefront of computing power, pushing the envelope with newer, faster technologies and moving these technologies into a robust production computing environment. Today, NCSA is home to a number of supercomputers that are designed and configured to support a broad range of science and engineering applications. All told, these computers can perform more than 140 trillion calculations every second (140 teraflops).

The Cutting-Edge of Computing Power

Researchers are demanding even more computing power for their work in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and myriad other fields. The National Science Foundation has given NCSA the mission of fielding the first sustained-petascale system for open scientific research. This machine, called Blue Waters, will be developed in conjunction with IBM and the Great Lakes Consortium for Petascale Computation, which combines the expertise of institutions from across the country, including both universities and national laboratories. Blue Waters will become available to researchers in 2011, providing them with the power to tackle scientific problems that previously were out of reach.

In addition to raw computing power, the Blue Waters project includes substantial support for development of science and engineering applications, enhancement of IBM’s system software, interactions with business and industry, and undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate education and training programs. This comprehensive approach ensures that users across the country will be able to use Blue Waters to its fullest potential.

It will be essential to scale scientific and engineering codes to take full advantage of the power of Blue Waters, enabling researchers to effectively exploit tens to hundreds of thousands of processors. NCSA and its partners will collaborate with scientists on porting, revising and rewriting, and optimizing the performance and scalability of existing applications. As well, they will develop new applications that describe complex natural and engineered systems, such as hurricanes and climate change, critical to the nation. Petascale Application Collaboration Teams will unite researchers and technologists from NCSA, the University of Illinois, IBM and the Great Lakes Consortium with application developers, pooling their expertise. The far-reaching educational and workforce development program connected with Blue Waters will impact students from K-12 through postgraduate education, reaching out to geographical areas and populations under-represented in supercomputing. At the undergraduate level, the program will educate the next generation of graduate students, K-12 teachers, future technical staff, and the informed public. At the graduate and postgraduate levels, the program will educate and train the next generation of researchers.

Enabling Scientific Breakthroughs

NCSA’s powerful computers enable thousands of scientists to “see” beyond the reach of the most sensitive observational instruments. Backed by the center’s computer resources, software, technology, and expertise, these researchers investigate fundamental questions such as how the human body functions at the molecular level, how the universe evolved in the moments after the Big Bang, and how atmospheric forces create deadly storms. Examples include:

  • Scientists used NCSA’s supercomputers to model the spread of a flu virus—including every individual in the United States, every school and workplace, and the journeys people make in their daily lives. Health care providers and policy makers can use this information to put the brakes on a potential epidemic.
  • Supercomputers at NCSA and other sites helped researchers develop new methods of locating the source of contaminants in urban water distribution systems.
  • NCSA’s computers enabled scientists to model every step of the photosynthetic process for the first time. Their simulations identified proteins that could greatly enhance plant productivity.
  • Simulations performed at NCSA revealed how HIV protease changes between forms, helping to determine when this “starter molecule” for the virus that causes AIDS is most vulnerable to new drugs that could derail the disease.

Tools to Tap Resources Effectively

Of course, in many fields it takes more than powerful computers to enable productive research. Scientists and engineers must be able to effectively exploit data sources and stores and computing resources that are distributed across the nation (indeed, sometimes around the world). To that end, NCSA develops cyber environments that integrate desktop and high-performance computing, enabling researchers to intuitively manage their work and to access remote data and computational resources.

For example, NCSA and the Mid-America Earthquake Center have collaboratively developed a tool, called MAEviz, that integrates a broad spectrum of data and analysis to help earthquake engineers and policymakers assess the physical, social, and economic losses that would be caused by an earthquake. MAEviz enables metropolitan areas threatened by earthquakes to better prepare for such events. It is being used in earthquake-prone locations like Turkey, Pakistan, and Memphis, Tennessee.

NCSA also develops tools, such as Tupelo and the Cyberintegrator, to address challenges in the management of data history, metadata, and long-term data preservation.

Ensuring Cybersecurity

Researchers, educators, students, and our government and business partners must be able to access NCSA’s computing resources from sites across the nation and around the world. That openness is essential, but it is also a vulnerability. NCSA staff have developed broad and deep expertise in detecting and responding to cyber-attacks and intrusions. The center is a recognized leader in both site security and security for distributed systems, and has developed new software to help protect computing systems and their users from malicious attacks.

NCSA also has a history of collaborating with law enforcement professionals to respond to and investigate intrusions and attempted attacks here and elsewhere. For example, NCSA collaborated with the Illinois Terrorism Task Force to help test and deploy secure smart-card ID technology for emergency first-responders. Recently, the center launched the National Center for Digital Intrusion Response, which actively integrates the FBI’s law enforcement investigative expertise with the technology and engineering acumen of NCSA’s recognized computer security and incident response personnel.

Driving Economic Growth

NCSA gives its business and industry partners a competitive edge by providing access to high-tech innovations and problem-solving expertise. Some of the nation’s leading companies have leveraged NCSA tools and technologies to gain competitive advantage. Our partners say that NCSA’s unique capabilities merge basic and applied research to solve real-world problems.

For example, Eli Lilly worked with NCSA to develop treatments tailored to the 3D structures of molecules and enzymes. NCSA helped Caterpillar use virtual prototyping to slash the amount of time required to design and evaluate new products. NCSA developed data-mining software that enabled Sears to analyze point-of-sale procedures and pinpoint fraudulent transactions, reducing costs, increasing revenue, and improving staff efficiency.

Current NCSA collaborators include: ACNielsen, Boeing, Caterpillar, John Deere, Dell, ExxonMobil, IBM, JPMorgan, Microsoft, Motorola, Rolls-Royce, and State Farm.

Technologies that were first developed at NCSA have also been transferred to the marketplace—the most famous example, of course, is NCSA Mosaic, the first widely available graphic Web browser. When NCSA developed Mosaic in the early 1990s, the Internet was used by only a small number of academic and government institutions. Within a year of Mosaic’s release, several million people were using the free software to find information on the Web. The seminal software spawned both Netscape (founded by NCSA alumni) and Internet Explorer (which licensed Mosaic), and today the Web is a ubiquitous tool of communication and commerce.

Sharing Knowledge

Research shouldn’t languish in the lab; science and engineering insights need to be shared with the widest possible audience. Visualization experts at NCSA transform dry data into artful animations that have been showcased at the American Museum of Natural History, in an Oscar-nominated IMAX movie, in documentaries for PBS NOVA and the Discovery Channel, and at planetariums and theaters around the globe.

The center also helps educators bring advanced technology to the classroom—from elementary schools to universities. NCSA works to improve science education in Illinois schools by providing the state’s teachers with hands-on training in the use of the visualization tools and technologies that can bring lessons to life for their students. With the Department of Chemistry, the College of Education, and other educational partners, NCSA recently launched the Institute for Chemistry Literacy and Computational Science to strengthen Illinois teachers’ understanding of chemistry and thereby improve chemistry education.

To learn more about NCSA’s history, resources, projects, and expertise, go to

Trish L. Barker is a Public Information Specialist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

National Center for Supercomputing Applications Powers Scientific Breakthroughs