Topdawg is a very powerful supercomputer, Kelvin Droegemeier says, "but there are a lot of other more powerful machines." And researchers such as Droegemeier, meteorology professor and associate vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, can use those larger machines, like supercomputers operated by the National Science Foundation. So, why bother with Topdawg? "On-demand computing." To get time on other machines can require writing proposals and scheduling time, sometimes months ahead. Sometimes, especially whenever the weather gets "interesting and active," Droegemeier said, you can't wait. "You have a need, and you've got to have it right now," he said. "You can't just go to a national center and say, ‘Hey, this afternoon, there's going to be some storms. We need the whole machine for the next two hours or four hours.'" Some weather research is done at a slower pace, though. Meteorologists in the near future plan to run weather simulations on Topdawg that will keep the entire computer busy for a week, said Henry Neeman, director of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research. Also, Droegemeier said, weather researchers each spring run experiments on an NSF supercomputer in Pittsburgh that tie up about one-third of the machine from midnight to 6 a.m. each day for a week. Regardless of which computer researchers use, however, none can handle all the tasks forecasters want them to do, Droegemeier said. While most research using computers can be done at a slower pace, weather simulations intended for use in forecasting must run 10-20 times faster than real time. A 24-hour analysis, for instance, must be completed in a few hours. Another challenge for computing is that weather researchers want finer and finer detail in forecasting, adding data down to a "block-by-block" basis, as well as data from numerous levels of altitude. In order to digest that much data and create forecasts in real time, Droegemeier said, computers must perform at incredible speeds, he said. While machines such as Topdawg can theoretically crank out about 6 trillion calculations per second, the next generation of computers could be capable of 1,000 trillion calculations. "Technology is going to get us to the speeds we need," Droegemeier said.
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Some projects Topdawg handles• Weather forecasting: Simulating patterns in storms and other weather systems. • High-energy physics: Simulating collisions of the tiniest particles in the universe. • Bioinformatics: Analyzing genomic and molecular biological data. • Molecular dynamics: Studying behavior of molecules, such as highly complex protein folding.