Berkeley Lab opens new facility for supercomputers, fiber optic network

Sierra Brown/Staff

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory dedicated a new building Thursday, which will house the fastest research and education fiber-optic network in the nation, as well as at least two supercomputers.

Wang Hall — named after campus professor emeritus Shyh Wang — will house Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division; National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, or NERSC; and the Energy Sciences Network, or ESnet. Wang, who had worked in the campus’s department of electrical engineering and computer sciences for 34 years, saw the importance of solid-state devices and was an early leader in the field of semiconductors, publishing more than 200 peer-reviewed articles.

“It was always envisioned that the three divisions would move together into the new building,” said Greg Bell, director of ESnet, a high-speed network for U.S. Department of Energy research sites, national laboratories and universities. “It doesn’t make sense so much to think about networking in isolation.”

The supercomputers are connected to a 400-gigabit-per-second network, which thousands of national and international scientists can access. Four NERSC users have used the computational abilities for research that was honored with Nobel Prizes.

The conception of a new facility began more than 12 years ago, according to Horst Simon, deputy director of the Berkeley Lab, but funding, environmental impact and seismic concerns prolonged construction.

Because of its proximity to the Hayward Fault Zone, engineers designed the building with a seismically isolated floor, the first of its kind, which can withstand up to a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. This allows the supercomputers to continue operations uninterrupted, even if the building itself moves up to 18 inches.

The facility captures stormwater from its roof in a cistern, which is then slowly released to the nearby Strawberry Canyon. Wang Hall will be applying for LEED Gold status — which certifies energy-efficient buildings — and uses outside air to cool the building and the heat-producing supercomputer Cori.

A laptop, in contrast to a supercomputer, has one or two core processors and produces a steady stream of heat. Cori — one of the supercomputers named after Nobel laureate Gerty Cori — will have 64 cabinets with hundreds of thousands of processing cores. Most supercomputers require a lot of energy to cool down, but Cori is much more energy efficient than its counterparts because it runs at a lower speed and has cold water pipes that cool the air of each cabinet.

Construction of Wang Hall — which cost nearly $143 million — was financed by university bonds, as DOE funding for new buildings would have required a congressional mandate. Dila Wang, Shyh Wang’s wife, also made a contribution to the Berkeley Lab Foundation.

The university took on an “interesting and unprecedented role” to help finance the building, according to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. The DOE has a 30-year mortgage with the campus with funding borrowed from the UC Office of the President and is making payments on the bond, according to Jonathan Carter, computing sciences area deputy at Berkeley Lab.

The campus sees significant benefit in continuing its 80-year relationship with Berkeley Lab. About 500 campus students work with the lab every year, and the campus will gain permanent space for the newly formed Berkeley Institute for Data Science and the interdepartmental Configurable Quantum Network for Advanced Computing.

Two of NERSC’s well-known supercomputer projects include research into cosmic microwave background radiation — thermal background radiation remaining after the Big Bang — and global climate-change simulations.

Wang Hall allows the network and supercomputers to be in the same building, but their utility is connected across the globe through its fiber optic network.

“We think of (ESnet) as an entity to make geography irrelevant in science,” Bell said. “Geography is no longer a constraint in science. The vision is democratizing.”

Contact Pamela Larson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @PamReporting.

A previous version of this article misspelled Dila Wang’s name.