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AFRL’s Newest Supercomputer Supports Game-Changing Research


1.28 petaFLOPS (floating operations per second) is equal to 1.28 quadrillion calculations per second, which is also the speed of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) new Cray XC30 supercomputer, nicknamed Lightning, which was officially unveiled Sept. 23 during a special ribbon-cutting ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Lightning joins a second supercomputer, Spirit, at AFRL’s DOD Supercomputer Resource Center (DSRC), effectively doubling the center’s computing power and enabling it to meet the increasing computational demands of the defense research community.

The AFRL DSRC at Wright-Patterson is one of five in the DOD. Lightning’s high-performance computing and advanced computational methods will further assist AFRL with researching, developing, and testing new warfighting systems and capabilities, allowing for the investigation of solutions to problems that are too hazardous, time-consuming, or expensive using traditional approaches. It also facilitates research that is often too encumbered with massive amounts of data.

Among the featured speakers at the ceremony were AFRL commander Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello and Christine Cuicchi, DOD associate director for High Performance Computing Centers.

According to Masiello, Lightning will assist with calculations used in the development of AFRL game changers, including hypersonics and rocket propulsion. It will also play a large role in calculations vital to space situational awareness.

The shared computers can perform modeling to enable breakthroughs in computational fluid dynamics, chemistry, nanotechnology, electromagnetics, acoustics, and advanced materials and structures. Beyond their speed, they are a cost-efficient, safe alternative to actual physical testing, such as wind-tunnel or volatile chemical tests.

Lightning was named in honor of the Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It ranks among the world’s fastest distributed memory platforms with a total disk space of 4.5 petabytes. To put this number into perspective, one petabyte of memory is large enough to store the DNA information of the entire population of the United States—twice.

The $20.8 million supercomputer is part of a larger investment of the DOD High Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP).

"In 2014, HPCMP is acquiring over $150 million worth of supercomputing assets, and the first of these to actually provide compute cycles for our research development, engineering, and test community is Lightning," said Cuicchi.

The AFRL DSRC is the largest high-performance computing center (HPC) in the Air Force, and it currently houses the largest HPC system in all of the DoO. Lightning will additionally enable AFRL and DOD researchers to perform highly complex calculating tasks in weapon system design, warfighting systems, and modeling and simulation studies.

"[Lightning] is a key cog to help us remain the greatest Air Force in the world," said Masiello.

In addition to Lightning and Spirit, AFRL also operates an IBM iDataPlex supercomputer, nicknamed Riptide, located in Maui, Hawaii. Under the DOD’s modernization program, these machines typically operate for four to five years until a new generation replaces them.

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