Home

Bill Thigpen, Engineering Branch Chief of NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Division

Thigpen: Each of the mission directorates gets a certain allocation on the system and that’s set at headquarters. That can vary, and we can change priorities based on what the agency requirements are. So there’s an allocation that is sort of handed out to the mission directorates, and there’s an agency priority allocation that can be given as the agency deems appropriate whenever needed. Then, within each of the mission directorates they prioritize the work that gets done, and then we just implement whatever it is that they prioritize.

NTB: Computer technology becomes obsolete very quickly these days. What is NASA doing to ensure that Columbia stays up-to-date and state-of-the-art?

Thigpen: We’re right in the middle of a NAS technology refresh, where we’re looking at what the next generation of system is going to be. Basically there are three technologies that are very promising that we are looking at right now. Within the next month, probably, we should make a decision on where that is going to go.

We’re looking at a follow-on, basically, to Columbia, with the Columbia technology. We’re also looking at IBM’s next technology, which is the POWER Series computer. We’re looking at the POWER6, which is coming out this year. And then we’re also looking at a more standard cluster based on the Xeon processor. That would be a Quad-Core processor, and those look real promising right now.

NTB: What about security? I would think one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers would be a very attractive target for hackers and spies. How do you protect a system like that from unwanted intruders?

Thigpen: We’re pretty much attacked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We have multiple layers of security that protect us, and we have a team of people whose job it is to make sure we’re protected.

In front of the system there are secure front ends. The secure front ends are very pared-down Unix machines, and that’s all that faces the world. You can’t get into Columbia without going through those secure front ends, so they’re like walls around the system. It requires dual-factor authentication to get into the front end and the passwords are changing a minimum of once a minute. People have a code that they enter and they have a fob that is basically generating a new password — mine generates them every 30 seconds — so you put in a combination of those two things, and then you have a standard password that also has to meet strict criteria as far as how many letters; how it can’t have words in it; it has to have a combination of special characters, regular characters, numbers, and that whole process.

NTB: Aside from Columbia, what other resources does NASA’s Supercomputing Division have to offer?

Thigpen: We have a new IBM POWER5 — it’s called a 575+ — and it has 40 compute nodes, each with 16 SMPs in 8 Dual-Cores. It’s got a peak teraflops rating of 4.9 teraflops and it has 180 terabytes online. That is one of the next-generation systems we are looking at in the NASA technology refresh; the follow-on to that is the POWER6 that I alluded to earlier.

There’s also a cluster that we’d bought for ARMD, so it’s not available to the entire agency. Just like ESMD, ARMD wanted to have more compute capability than came in under the regular SCAP (Shared Capability Assets Program) effort.

NTB: What does ARMD stand for?