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  History of Computers 1959 to 2004


In the beginning...
 
About 50 years ago, the Synoptic and Dynamical Research Sub-committee of the Meteorological Research Committee recommended that the Met Office obtain an electric desk-calculator, and recruit a mathematician specially trained in computational methods, to enable the office to undertake trial meteorological computations.

So it was, with such basic equipment, not even capable of automatic multiplication, that the Met Office began to fulfil the dream of L.F. Richardson, when in 1922 he suggested the possibility of numerical weather prediction using a grand "forecast factory" - consisting of thousands of (human) computers, seated around a globe shaped auditorium, each one calculating the future state of the atmosphere at a fixed location by evaluating a set of equations.

In the ten years following the purchase of the electrical desk-calculator, a small number of Met Office staff had access to a "real" computer - the LEO 1 - which had been built by Lyons, the caterers. Eventually, in 1959 the Met Office purchased its first computer - a Ferranti Mercury, which the office named Meteor. With glowing valves and copious volumes of paper tape, the Met Office had entered the computer age.

 

A brief history...
 

Through the decades following the arrival of Meteor, the Met Office has regularly upgraded and replaced its computers, to take advantage of the speed and functionality provided by new technology. During this time, the size and complexity of the meteorological models and their associated data have also increased dramatically, reflecting the steady increase in computational power and memory sizes. The table below shows the increase in computational power of the Met Office's computers over the last 35 years, and how the meteorological models have also increased in both horizontal and vertical resolution during this period.

Met Office computers from 1959 to 2004
  Computer Calculations per second Main memory (words) Horizontal resolution
(Global/local)/levels
1959 Ferranti Mercury 3x103 1x103 (N.A./320 km)/2 levels
1965 English Electric KDF 9 50x103 12x103 (N.A./300 km)/3 levels
1972 IBM 360/195 4x106 250x103 (300 km/100 km)/10 levels
1982 CDC Cyber 205 200x106 1x106 (150 km/75 km)/15 levels
1991 Cray Y-MP C90/16 1x109 256x106 (90 km/17 km)/19 levels
1997 Cray T3E 900/1200 1.5x1012 36x109 (60 km/12km)/38 levels
 

The Cray T3E
 

Between 1997 and 2004, the Met Office used two Cray T3E supercomputers. The T3E was a radical departure to what had been used previously. Instead of having a single processor like the IBM 360/195 or just several like the Cray Y-MP, it was capable of having several hundred processors. This type of computer is known as MPP or Massively Parallel Processor. The T3E used commodity ('off the shelf') processors rather than specifically designed ones like the C90 did and thus despite containing many more processors than the C90, it was not proportionally more expensive.

 

The NEC SX-8/SX-6
 

In 2004, following successful relocation to its new headquarters building in Exeter, the Met Office changed computers again. Initially the operational forecast was run on a NEC SX-6 supercomputer but was transferred o a more powerful NEC SX-8 supercomputer in April 2005. The SX-6 still remains key to the Met Office's capabilities; in addition to acting as a backup machine, the SX-6 will be used for Research and Development.

The SX-6 and SX-8 differ to the T3E in that they have fewer, but much more powerful processors. The SX-6 and SX-8 machines are divided into 'nodes' with each node containing eight processors. Currently the SX-8 has 16 nodes, and there are two SX-6 clusters; one with 19 nodes, and the other with 15 nodes. Each SX-8 node is twice as powerful as an SX-6 node, so together, the combined systems deliver over thirteen times the sustained power of the previous Cray T3E computers, which the SX-6 replaced in 2004.

Weather forecasts will benefit from the extra power, which will mean increased accuracy and detail in the models run by the supercomputer. These models will provide improved forecasts of high-impact weather, building on data available from a new generation of satellites. Climate change predictions will become even more authoritative through increases in resolution; representation of new processes and the use of ensemble predictions to provide risk assessments.

 
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