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Met Office to triple its computing power

The weather-forecasting organisation plans to increase its computing and storage capabilities so it can handle its burgeoning forecast models
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

The Met Office is planning a vast increase in its computing power and storage capabilities to meet growing complexity in its forecasting models, the weather forecaster said on Tuesday.

The Exeter-headquartered organisation said next year it will install a fourth generation of high-performance computing that will triple its computing power. Within the last few years, the Met Office has already outgrown two generations of supercomputers from Cray and NEC. It now has an IBM Power 6-based supercomputer — already the most powerful of its peers — but believes it will soon outgrow that system too.

"We will upgrade to Power 7 in 2011," said Graham Mallin, the Met Office's programme manager for IT infrastructure, delivering a lecture to the Institution for Engineering and Technology on Tuesday. "This will give us a three-time increase in power."

The Met Office already uses a 32 core-per-node supercomputer that consumes 1.2 megawatts but works at 125 teraflops, which is a vast increase on the 5.4-teraflop performance offered by its previous NEC SX618 supercomputer.

Mallin said some vendors were planning to manufacture an exaflop machine — 8,000 times faster than the Met Office's current model — by the year 2020. However, he said the creation of this machine would cause a huge issue if it used current technology because it would consume 2 gigawatts — a quantity of power that would not be feasible to supply to a datacentre. The Met Office's IT halls currently accommodate 2 megawatts.

Mallin went on to explain how the handling of data and its storage was proving a big challenge to the organisation's 100-strong infrastructure team, which represents over 5 percent of its total workforce.

The team has already installed a 10Gbps fibre core network with 1Gbps to the desktop, so the next stage is to install a faster storage system that will store the Met Office's vast range of forecasting models and accompanying data.

"Storage volumes are going up and up and up. We have to do something about it," said Mallin. "We are archiving 10TB a day. In two years, we will be able to hold 30TB."

This data, Mallin said, is mostly held on tape libraries in two massive IT halls of 137,000 cubic feet each. Total tape capacity is already 12 petabytes, he said.

Better models and increased use of satellites for gathering data mean that the Met Office's three-day forecast is now as accurate as its 24-hour forecast was 30 years ago, despite the higher uncertainty of making forecasts further in advance, Mallin said. "We're as good now three days ahead as we were one day ahead in 1980," he said.

He also outlined two future initiatives that will shape the way the Met Office handles its data. To cut its IT costs, it is about to migrate end-users onto a thin-client architecture so its computing power can be consolidated into the two IT halls.

In addition, the Met Office will ramp up a project to urge members of the public to install weather stations in their own gardens. This project will provide the Met Office with considerable extra data that it can use to improve the accuracy of its forecasts, Mallin said.

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