Networking On The Bleeding Edge: A look at the Advanced Computing Labs at Los Alamos National Laboratories

Networking On The Bleeding Edge
A look at the Advanced Computing Labs at Los Alamos National Laboratories, 1993

By Caleb John Clark

As we careen towards the day when high-speed networks will connect us all as if we were playing a nation-wide game of Twister, a look into a place that is experimenting with those connections today seems a prudent move.

Los Alamos National Laboratories’ (LANL) Advanced Computing Lab (ACL) is working on high-speed networking using a Thinking Machines Corporation CM-5. The CM-5 is, according to LANL, the most powerful massively parallel computer, and has the largest scientific computing capability, on the planet (at least this week). As Andy White, ACL’s director is fond of saying, ACL is a lab on, “the bleeding edge of super computing.” ACL also tackles Grand Challenge problems (problems that require massively parallel computers) like “3D toroidal gyrokinetic simulation of tokamak turbulence and transport.”

What do these supercharged crown princes of the computer domain think about the future of cyberspace? Being government employees, how do they feel about censorship? Does full spectrum light hurt their eyes? But first, a little background.

The famous government controlled and funded LANL is the sole reason Los Alamos, New Mexico has so much as a zip code. Los Alamos was nothing but a secluded boy’s school until J. Robert Oppenheimer came riding up on a horse one day and decided that he had found the perfect remote site to build a secret laboratory. Los Alamos is hidden high in the Jemez mountains 40 minutes west of Santa Fe, and has been a magnet for gifted scientists ever since truckloads of them were brought there during W.W.II to develop the first atomic bomb.

Back in those days the entire town was so secret all the residents had to share the same post office box in Santa Fe. One of the flaws of this plan was that after Sears and Roebuck & Co. had shipped hundreds of copies of their catalog to the same address, they refused to send anymore.

Today ACL projects directly relevant to our “technopolis” are ACL’s High Performance Parallel Interface (HIPPI) invented at ACL by Steve Tenbrink and Wally St. John. HIPPI is able to move, or “pipe”, information at 0.8 Gbit/second and is being used to connect all of ACL’s equipment. HIPPI links and HIPPI crossbar switches are also being used in a gigabit testbed project called “CASA”. CASA is successfully testing ultra high-speed networking using direct fiber optic connections (donated by phone companies), between, LANL, Cal. Tech., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the San Diego Supercomputing Center.

Interestingly ACL, which is only five years old, is doing all this in an atmosphere of unheard of openness and is detached from the tightly guarded national security work being done, “inside the fence,” as they say at LANL. ACL’s radical departure from normal LANL operations is due to a conscious decision to put the major experimental hardware outside the fence and give the “bomb guys” inside the outdated massively parallel computers. It seems even the government has realized that developing technology for future networks, and keeping it in the open, is at least as important as making bombs.

As White said in a recent report, “ACL will provide the environment and facilities for scientists and engineers to work together with industry, academia, and other national laboratories to enable the solution of Grand Challenge problems…basically, we are all in this together – partners if you will – each with our own opportunities and responsibilities for making the whole thing work.”

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