NERSCPowering Scientific Discovery for 50 Years

NERSC History

50 Years of Supercomputing for Science

The founding of the world’s first unclassified supercomputing center began in 1973 when Dr. Alvin Trivelpiece, then deputy director of the Controlled Thermonuclear Research (CTR) program of the Atomic Energy Commission, solicited proposals for a computing center that would aid in reaching fusion power, giving the magnetic fusion program under CTR access to computing power similar to that of the defense programs. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was chosen as the site for the new center which would be called the CTR Computer Center (CTRCC), later renamed the NMFECC (National Magnetic Fusion Energy Computer Center), and eventually NERSC. Starting with a cast-off CDC 6600, within a year from its inception, the center added a new CDC 7600 and provided, for the first time, a remote access system that allowed fusion energy scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), as well as the General Atomics research center in southern California, to communicate with the centralized computers.

The center continued to deploy leading-edge systems, and in 1978, NMFECC developed the Cray Time Sharing System (CTSS), which allowed remote users to interface with its Cray-1 supercomputer. At the time, computers were essentially custom machines, delivered without software, leaving centers to develop their own. Due to its success, CTSS was eventually adopted by multiple computing centers, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) centers established in the mid-1980s in Chicago, Illinois, and San Diego, California. In 1985, when ORNL deployed a Cray X-MP vector processing system, the system also ran CTSS. NERSC next deployed the first four-processor system, the 1.9-gigaflop Cray-2, which replaced the Cray X-MP as the fastest in the world. Having been prepared for multitasking, CTSS allowed users to run on the Cray-2 just one month after delivery.

In 1983, the NMFECC opened its systems to users in other science disciplines, allocating five percent of system time to the other science offices in DOE’s Office of Energy Research, paving the way for a broader role of computation across the research community. By 1990, the center was allocating computer time to such a wide range of projects from all of the Office of Energy Research offices that the name was changed to NERSC.

The growing number of users and increased demand for computing resources led Trivelpiece, then head of DOE’s Office of Energy Research, to make another decision that mapped out a path for making those resources more widely accessible. He recommended that DOE’s Magnetic Fusion Energy Network (MFEnet) be combined with the High Energy Physics network (HEPnet) to become ESnet (Energy Sciences Network) in 1986. ESnet’s roots stretch back to the mid-1970s, when staff at the CTRCC installed four acoustic modems on the center’s CDC 6600 computer.

As part of the High Performance Parallel Processing project with LANL, NERSC deployed a 128-processor Cray T3D machine, the first large-scale, parallel system from Cray Research, in 1994. The machine was used in a national laboratory-industry partnership to advance the development of parallel codes and upgraded to 256 processors within a year.

In 1996 NERSC moved from Livermore to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory acquired the Cray T3E-600 system, its first massively parallel processor architecture machine which was upgraded to a T3E-900 the following year. The system brought with it a fundamental change in the computing environment, making it possible for scientists to perform larger and more accurate simulations. It also had the largest I/O system built to date with 1.5 terabytes of disk storage and a read/write capability of 800 megabytes. Ranked No. 5 on the TOP500 list, this system, named MCurie, was the most powerful computer for open science in the U.S. NERSC’s upgraded T3E- 900 provided the training platform for a materials science project led by ORNL’s Malcolm Stocks, whose code was the first application to reach a sustained performance of 1 teraflop.

By 2003, NERSC was supporting more than 4,000 users from all the Office of Science program offices, and requests for time on its systems were three times what was available. At the direction of Office of Science Director Raymond Orbach, NERSC launched the INCITE (Innovative & Novel Computational Impact on Theory & Experiment) program, which created a system for scientists to apply for and receive large allocations of time on NERSC computing resources. INCITE was expanded to include the leadership computing facilities (LCF) in 2006 and the program is now supported by the ANL and ORNL facilities.

In November 2015, Berkeley Lab opened Shyh Wang Hall, a 149,000-square-foot facility housing NERSC, ESnet, and researchers in the laboratory’s Computational Research Division. The facility is one of the most energy-efficient computing centers anywhere, tapping into the San Francisco Bay’s mild climate to cool NERSC’s supercomputers and eliminate the need for mechanical cooling and earned a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
The facility soon became home to NERSC’s next system, Cori, a 30-petaflop/s Cray system with Intel Xeon Phi (Knights Landing) processors. With 68 low-power cores and 272 hardware threads per node, Cori was the first system to deliver an energy-efficient, pre-exascale architecture for the entire Office of Science HPC workload. In 2019, NERSC began preparing for the installation of its next-generation, pre-exascale Perlmutter system, a Cray Shasta machine which will be a heterogeneous system comprising both CPU-only and GPU-accelerated cabinets.