Touring Blue Waters – The National Petascale Computing Facility

The NCSA held a community day yesterday at their new National Petascale Computing Facility located in Champaign, IL which will be the home of the Blue Waters Sustained Petascale Computing super-computer amongst other super computers. When the new hardware comes online next year it will be the world’s fastest super-computer yet, powered by IBM’s POWER7 systems. With the rest of this article, you’ll get to see what I and over a thousand others got to see on our tours yesterday through pictures and video.

The cool indoor pictures come with permission and many thanks to @mbohlmann a colleague and from we can help IT.

The building is massive at 88,000 square feet and Blue Waters will take up about 20,000 square feet of the facility with the rest of the space being used for other projects including collaborating with the NSA. It was designed in partnership with a U of I undergraduate class and termed “tornado-proof”. It is also very energy efficient and will achieve at least a LEED Gold certification, an excellent rating for a Green Building. The supercomputers are water cooled which should reduce energy consumption by 40%. The facility will produce 70% of the chilled water it needs and will borrow the other 30% when needed from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

This seems to be their preferred view of the building but I don’t think it impresses upon you the absolute size of the location as the picture above. The tour gathered more excitement than I believe they expected. The line was out the door, to the sidewalk, and turned 90 degrees in the hot afternoon sun.

Once you get inside, you’ll get to see a secured area with a reception window but more intriguingly, there are iris (retina) scanners and an air-lock to enter the building. Because there was a constant stream of people, we used a different door but I did get to see a guy go through the airlock. Due to the number of people squeezed into the space, I wasn’t able to get a good picture of the airlock.

Once inside we climbed up a flight of stairs and crossed a hallway to enter a large room that will hold the computers and data storage. The floor is paneled with a 6 foot subfloor and 3 foot cable trays to allow signal cables and other parts of the infrastructure to easily pass through including the cold water and return lines.

Here’s a video from the tour I capped with my Flip Video the explains the infrastructure specs.

NCSA has 144 racks up testing the infrastructure using IBM 780 systems in the interim until they get the IBM POWER7 systems setup.

The hardware is based on these drawers with 8 systems per drawer and 4 drawers in each supernode providing more than a TB/s of bandwidth.

Above the tour, you’ll see the 24″ cooling water pipes providing the cooling system.

This video explains the chilled water, the building design, and the length of the systems.

Providing the power is a large transformer room below the computing room, delivering electricity at 480 volts for efficiency reasons.

This video concludes the tour. (I apologize for the noise, the electricity was humming like a vuvuzela.)

This postcard was handed out with the community day along with a frisbee. There was also a t-shirt and a magazine (which ran out on the person right before me!) that they were handing out as swag for coming to check out the facility.


A sign giving credit to those involved in completing the facility (including ex-governor Blagojevich) stands off the East of the building.

The tour was a great event and there was a great turn out showing the amount of interest (and nerds) there are in Champaign-Urbana.

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