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Meet Mira, the world's fifth fastest supercomputer

LEMONT – When Argonne National Laboratory held a dedication for its new supercomputer on July 1, it was the culmination of almost 10 years of work.

Mira, the fifth fastest supercomputer in the world, is an IBM Blue Gene/Q system consisting of 48 racks of computers and 786,432 processors. It has 768 terabytes of memory and is capable of 10 quadrillion calculations per second.

"People are very excited about it," said Rick Stevens, Argonne's associate laboratory director for computing, environment and life sciences. "It's a new great resource for computational science. You can do things that you just couldn't do before. If you are an artist, it's like having a giant canvas."

The name Mira comes from the Latin root word for "admirable" or "miraculous." Stevens said Argonne chose the name because it is easy to spell and fun to say.

The project started in 2004 as a collaboration between Argonne, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and IBM. The labs hired IBM to build a new supercomputer for each site.

Five years were spent on research and development. Stevens said IBM developed the supercomputer, while the labs gave the performance requirements. IBM then spent two years putting designs into production.

Argonne received the hardware for the supercomputer in January 2012, but installation was an 18-month-long process.

Stevens said that because the supercomputer was too big for IBM to put together and test ahead of time, Argonne knew it would discover things it had to fix during the installation.

"Big machines have a very complex process of bringing them up," he said. "Each rack has many connections to other racks. You install a few racks, wire them up and test them, then install a few more."

That process took nearly eight months, after which Argonne had to put the system through strict tests to determine performance and reliability.

Stevens said Mira has been running effectively for a few weeks. It will be used for all the research projects done at the lab, as well as by other labs across the country.

The new supercomputer will allow researchers to work on larger projects and do projects faster, Stevens said. Researchers use computers to simulate experiments quicker and more efficiently than if they were to physically make the designs.

"(A more powerful supercomputer) makes simulations more accurate, so the difference between what your model predicts and what you actually design is as small as possible," he said.

The scientists at Argonne will not simply sit back and marvel at their new supercomputer. Staying at the forefront of research is a constant process.

Argonne's last supercomputer, Intrepid, was installed in 2008, well after plans for Mira had started. Mira is 20 times faster than Intrepid, which at the time of its installation was the third-fastest supercomputer in the world.

According to Stevens, Argonne is already making plans for its next supercomputer, which it hopes to have functioning by 2017.

"This is partly what we are talking about with U.S. competitiveness," he said. "It takes a large number of people and a decadal effort to stand up these machines."

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