NERSCPowering Scientific Discovery Since 1974

NERSC History

Powering Scientific Discovery Since 1974

Contact: Jon Bashor,, +1 510 486 4236

For more information, read "25 Years of Leadership," a historical perspective written at NERSC's quarter-century mark.»Download (PDF | 32MB)

The oil crisis of 1973 did more than create long lines at the gas pumps — it jumpstarted a supercomputing revolution.

The quest for alternative energy sources led to increased funding for the Department of Energy's Magnetic Fusion Energy program, and simulating the behavior of plasma in a fusion reactor required a computer center dedicated to this purpose. Founded in 1974 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Controlled Thermonuclear Research Computer Center was the first unclassified supercomputer center and was the model for those that followed.

Over the years the Center's name was changed to the National Magnetic Fusion Energy Computer Center and later the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center (NERSC). In 1983 NERSC's role was expanded beyond the fusion program, and it began providing general computing services to all of the programs funded by the DOE Office of Energy Research (now the Office of Science). The current name was adopted in 1996 when NERSC relocated to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and merged with Berkeley Lab's Computing Sciences program. The name change — from "Supercomputer Center" to "Scientific Computing Center" — signaled a new philosophy, one of making scientific computing more productive, not just providing supercomputer cycles.

Back in 1974, the Center began operation with a borrowed Control Data Corporation 6600 computer. Initially most users had to connect modems to their terminals and dial up this computer via telephone, though some early users were able to use the ARPA network for connectivity. In 1975, a CDC 7600 replaced the 6600. In 1976, dedicated, leased phone lines connected the Center with the major fusion energy research sites, allowing users to log into the 7600 from their local DEC PDP-10 minicomputers. The machine was rapidly filled to capacity, and for a while we had to purchase additional 7600 time from Berkeley Lab.

The center acquired a Cray 1 in 1978 and soon became known as an innovator in the management and operation of supercomputers. We converted our 7600 operating system, utilities, and libraries to the new machine, creating the Cray Time Sharing System (CTSS) — the first timesharing system for a Cray — and demonstrating that the machine could be used interactively. CTSS was subsequently adopted by nine other computer centers.

The world's first Cray 2, a four-processor system, was installed at the Center in 1985. We had already spent two years preparing the CTSS operating system for multitasking. This preparation paid off when the Cray 2 was available to users only one month after delivery.

NERSC continued to enhance the productivity of cutting-edge computer architectures. In August 1997, NERSC achieved a milestone: successfully stopping and restarting a number of scientific computing jobs on a Cray T3E without any data processing loss or discontinuity. Called "checkpointing," the stop/restart procedure is believed to be the first time such a procedure has been accomplished on a massively parallel processing (MPP) system. This accomplishment opened a new era of robust, reliable, production-mode MPP computing.

At Berkeley Lab, NERSC has become an active partner in the scientific programs that both shape and benefit from high-performance computing. Our high-performance computing systems and excellent client services are now complemented by expanded expertise in computational and computing science. Taking advantage of our proximity to the University of California Berkeley campus, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, major computer and data communications companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the diverse scientific research programs at Berkeley Lab, NERSC strives to achieve a level of scientific and technological collaboration unequaled by any other high performance computer center.

In November 2000, NERSC's computing and storage systems moved from Berkeley Lab's main site to the Oakland Scientific Facility in downtown Oakland, where NERSC remains to this day.

Over the years, the center has grown to serve over 4,000 researchers working on 400 projects and reporting an average of 1,500 scholarly papers (either published, submitted, or in review) made possible by NERSC resources ranging from supercomputers to consultants who provide services in performance, analytics and visualization.

In 2010, the center broke the quadrillions-of-calculations-per-second mark with Hopper, a Cray XE6 named for pioneering computing scientist Grace Murray Hopper. With more than 150,000 processor cores, the system is capable of peak theoretical performance of 1.05 petaflops (quadrilliions of "floating point operations" per second). Hopper operates alongside a second supercomputing system (Franklin, a Cray XT4 accepted in 2009), an IBM iDataplex cluster (Carver) and various special-purpose and testbed systems, including PDSF (dedicated to high-energy physics), the Joint Genome Institute's system (dedicated to genomic research), the scientific cloud-computing testbed Magellan (co-located at Argonne National Lab), and Euclid, an experiment in using commercial graphics-processing units, or GPUs, to speed scientific applications. As scientific data grows, NERSC has kept pace with the High-Performance Storage System, or HPSS, an archival storage system capable of storing a theoretical maximum of about 9.5 million gigabytes (equal to roughly half the U.S. Library of Congress' print collection).

The Energy Sciences Network( ESnet) has grown and evolved along with NERSC, moving beyond computer access to provide a full range of communication services for DOE scientists.

About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high-performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the NERSC Center serves more than 6,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. DOE Office of Science. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.