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Met Office bags shiny new supercomputer

Cray twins out of the forecasting business

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The Meterological Office, the hub of the UK's weather forecasting, has opened a new supercomputing centre in Exeter as part of the celebrations of its 150th anniversary.

It has ditched its two old Crays, and bought itself a brand new shiny NEC supercomputer: a multi-nodal SX-6, no less. This, it says, has upped the computing power at its disposal six times, and should reduce the number of "busts" - instances when forecasts go badly wrong. The Met has been running the NEC in tandem with the Crays for the last fortnight, but took the old machines offline on Friday.

On the subject of busts, there is currently a journalistic law in the UK stating that at this point in a news story about weather predictions, reporters must mention poor old Michael "No, there isn't a hurricane on its way" Fish. For the benefit of extra-UK readers, we'll explain that Fish uttered these legendary words during a weather forecast the night before the whole of Britain was flattened by gales.

That done, we can turn to more serious matters. Accurate forecasts can help the world with more significant decisions than whether or not to take a jacket to work. To take two examples: supermarkets rely on the Met Office predictions to decide how much ice-cream to order [certainly a life-or-death decision - ed], and power companies use them to predict surges in demand.

Each of the two NEC machines is a 15 node cluster, with eight processors per node. Each of those processors is capable of peak performance of eight Gflops. The combined power of both clusters, the Met Office tells us, is 1.9Tflops. Zippy.

The new machines allow three main changes in the weather modelling: more satellite observations can go into the model; data processing is faster, improving the quality of analysis of the atmosphere; and researchers are able to make more detailed use of information from observations about how the atmosphere has changed with time.

The new set-up should improve forecasting skill by around six per cent, the Met Office said, and preliminary tests are showing positive results. Chief scientist John Mitchell commented: "We were expecting good results, but the magnitude of the improvements has been a pleasant surprise."

The machines will be upgraded again in 2005, which should see the computing power doubled once again. ®

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