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Japan weather bods rain on using cloud for tsunami warning data-crunching

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The agency which predicts tsunamis and earthquakes in Japan has poured cold water on the idea of using the cloud to underpin its supercomputing operations.

While cloud vendors have been touting supercomputing on tap for a few years now, Tatsuya Kimura, head of the office of international affairs at the Japan Meteorological Agency, questioned their suitability for the crucial predictions his agency has to make.

In the event of a major earthquake, the agency has to make a call in minutes as to whether to issue a tsunami alert. As well as providing Japan's weather services including tracking typhoons, the agency also issues earthquake warnings for the “Tokai” area, where the tectonic plates are particularly well understood.

“It’s a time-critical service,” he told journalists at agency's Tokyo HQ today. “We can’t say the warning was late because of the cloud service... I think it’s a little unlikely to move to the cloud.”

JMA’s current supercomputer is a 847 Teraflop beast supplied by Hitachi and housed in Tokyo - itself somewhat quake-prone. Fujitsu provides comms and other ICT services. Kimura said in the event of the JMA's supercomputer copping it, it doesn’t have a redundant backup, and would initially have to rely on weather data from other agencies such as the UK’s Met Office for its weather predictions.

The agency’s tsunami warnings are decided by humans, who rely on a previously compiled database of models covering different magnitudes and depths of quake across key locations. Japan can experience up to 1,000 quakes a day.

The system for tsunami warnings was overhauled in the wake of the devastating 2011 quake, which resulted in a tsunami that killed over 10,000.

Kimura said that quake was off the scale - the agency’s seismometers were “saturated” and could initially not give a reading for its magnitude, leading to an underestimation of the danger of the tsunami.

Kimura said the agency’s new protocol meant if a tsunami of more than 1m in magnitude is expected, it issues an immediate evacuation notice for areas likely to be hit.

While questioning cloud providers' suitability for underpinning its warning system, Kimura did say the agency uses cloud services for disseminating information, and will do so with imaging data from its upcoming new weather satellite, due to launch in October.

However, cloud vendors are unlikely to be able to change the agency’s mind any time soon. It upgrades supercomputer every five years, and has just put the advisory team together for the next refresh in four years time. Outsourcing the service is not on the agenda.®

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