The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC)
this year marks its 25th anniversary of providing scientific computing
resources to scientists studying problems such as combustion, global
climate change, fusion energy, computational biology, materials
science, high-energy and nuclear physics, and environmental remediation.
The center started out as the Controlled Thermonuclear Research
Computer Center and was later renamed the National Magnetic Fusion
Energy Computer Center and the National Energy Research Supercomputer
Center. These changes reflect the expanding scope of research conducted
using its facilities.
Originally established solely to support magnetic fusion research,
NERSC helped pioneer many of the computing practices taken for granted
today. These include remote access by thousands of users, high-performance
data storage and retrieval, and providing online documentation and
around-the-clock support for users. The one thing that remains constant
is that there is much more demand for computer time than is available
to be allocated.
"Through the years, the center was really a model for how
a national supercomputing facility should be organized," says
Horst Simon, head of the Lab's NERSC Division. "For example,
the San Diego Supercomputing Center was established by early users
of the magnetic fusion computer facility and patterned after our
center, as were the other National Science Foundation centers. In
1996, we reinvented the concept of the supercomputing center to
provide intellectual resources in addition to computer cycles --
and this model is again being emulated by others."
Today NERSC is home to seven Cray supercomputers and is used by
more than 2,500 researchers at national laboratories, universities
and industry. The forerunner of NERSC was officially established
in March of 1974 with the creation of an unclassified computer center
at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The center was originally established as the Controlled Thermonuclear
Research Computer Center to support magnetic fusion research, and
went on line in July 1974 with a borrowed computer -- a Control
Data Corp. 6600. That computer had a peak performance of less than
one megaflop, or one million calculations per second. By comparison,
NERSC's most powerful current machine, the 640-processor Cray T3E-900,
has a peak performance capacity of 621 billion calculations per
Early users gained access via four acoustic modems (users dialed
a number, waited for a tone, snuggled the phone handset into a rubbery
cradle and hoped for a good connection). Data was transmitted at
110 bits per second. Today, the Energy Sciences Network, or ESnet,
provides NERSC users with a secure network connection capable of
transmitting up to 155 million bits per second.
The center was soon renamed the National Magnetic Fusion Energy
Computer Center. Its machine room has been home to the pioneering
Cray 1 and Cray 2 supercomputers, as well as a Cray C90. In 1990,
to reflect the center's growing role in supporting a wider range
of research, it was renamed the National Energy Research Supercomputing
With DOE's decision to reinvent the center at Berkeley Lab in
1996 by adding intellectual resources to the computing resources,
the name was modified yet again to the National Energy Research
Scientific Computing Center. Today, the center features a 640-processor
Cray T3E-900 for massively parallel computing and six Cray J90s
for vector processing. Its data archive can hold up to 350 Terabytes
of scientific data.
"Whatever its name, NERSC has long been a model for other institutions wishing to establish supercomputing centers," said William McCurdy, who co-founded the Ohio Supercomputer Center in 1988 and became director of NERSC in 1991. McCurdy, a physical chemist and the associate laboratory director for Computing Sciences, adds: "The story of NERSC is really that of modern computational science in the U.S. From pioneering large-scale simulations to developing the early time sharing systems for supercomputers, much of the action has always been in this center."
NERSC Celebrates 25 Years of Computing