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December 1, 2023

Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Science Analytics and Synthesis Advanced Research Computing (ARC) installed its newest supercomputer, Hovenweep at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

Hovenweep Ribbon Cutting
Hovenweep Supercomputer ribbon cutting ceremony held on August 16, 2023 at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. From left: Cheryl Morris, Science Synthesis, Analysis and Research Program Coordinator; Kevin Gallagher, Associate Director for Core Science Systems; and Pete Doucette, Director of the EROS Center.

This new supercomputer also called a High-Performance Computing (HPC) system is currently the most powerful computer in the Department of the Interior.

Named Hovenweep after the national monument spanning the Utah-Colorado border, the new supercomputer is estimated to rank among the top 1,000 computers in the world. It is the third HPC system installed at EROS, where it will advance scientific understanding by tackling issues such as wildfire risk to homes, extreme weather events such as emergency flood mapping, and landslide and tsunami risk.

Hovenweep joins supercomputers Tallgrass and Denali, which have been operating at EROS for several years. It brings with it impressive upgrades to the fleet and is predicted to perform 640 trillion floating operations per second when all its capabilities have been tested, according to Jeff Falgout, technology lead for the USGS Advanced Research Computing (ARC) group.

“If every person on Earth was given a math worksheet, Hovenweep could do all of them in one second,” said Falgout. “And when compared to its predecessor, Denali, Hovenweep, requires only three-quarters of the footprint, has twice the CPU cores and has one and a half times the computing power.”

Corralling Data

Two months after Hovenweep’s installation, Kevin Gallagher, USGS Core Science Systems (CSS) Associate Director, presided over a ribbon cutting ceremony declaring the supercomputer officially operational on August 16.

Gallagher emphasized the value of Hovenweep and its predecessors in bringing order to the chaos of data overload. “The world is becoming inundated with information. We’re drowning in information while starving for wisdom,” he said, quoting E.O. Wilson.

Increasing the USGS’ capacity and speed in data processing cuts the time needed for each computing job, which enables scientists to run computer models multiple times.

“Not only can they increase the scale and complexity of the modeling, but they get their results so much faster,” Gallagher said. “That model that ran in four months (before) runs in four hours, or the thing that ran in two days runs in two seconds. And so that allows them to get those results, see what’s wrong with them, tune it, run it again, hindcast, forward-cast.”

EROS researchers like Brian Tolk, senior scientist for Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools (LANDFIRE), have experienced the advantages of HPC systems firsthand. Tolk gave the example of removing clouds from satellite imagery for large-scale land cover analysis. “With HPC, the manual cut-and-paste methods have evolved into a hands-free, automated find-and-replace-all function similar to that commonly found in word-processing software,” he said. “HPC use extends across disciplines and has given the scientists and engineers at EROS capabilities and processing power unattainable just years ago.”

Hovenweep High Performance Computing System
The Hovenweep High Performance Computing (HPC) system located at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, SD.

Boosting Computer Power Across the USGS

During his remarks at the dedication, Gallagher said all disciplines within USGS, not just the remote sensing scientists at EROS, will use the expanded capabilities brought by Hovenweep. Other agencies within the Department of the Interior (DOI), such as Bureau of Reclamation and others outside of DOI including the U.S. Forest Service, will also have access.

One of the first major jobs run through Hovenweep was for the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, based in Flagstaff, Arizona, where staff are building digital terrain models (DTMs) of the moon. Dr. Jason Laura, the lead for the project, said 99,000 DTMs were processed in the first few weeks that Hovenweep was operational. He added that Hovenweep helped the team discover an issue with the sensor model, something they were able to correct thanks to Hovenweep.

“Having these HPC resources readily available at this scale are a significant driver for derived data creation and science efforts,” Laura said. “We can propose work at larger scope than ever before and be confident that the compute resources are up to the task.”

The massive data load is a project for NASA Goddard, which plans to update and correct laser altimetry data in support of upcoming lunar exploration efforts. Falgout says running a really large project through the new system was a good test of its capabilities.

Jobs like this can monopolize Hovenweep for a period, but Falgout says care is taken to ensure researchers in different areas get a shot at using the HPC systems. The “fair share” system allows those who have been waiting a while to move up in the job queue quicker.

The Proven Power of Computing

While Hovenweep’s capabilities are yet to be fully explored, its HPC predecessors provide impressive examples of complex problems that researchers have modeled that produce everyday benefits for people. They include evaluating wildfire risk to homes, extreme weather events such as emergency flood mapping, and landslide and tsunami risk.

CONUS 404, a project that took 11 months to run on Denali, might be the research with the broadest effect across the nation. This joint effort between USGS and the National Center for Atmospheric Research sought to understand water availability, including groundwater and surface water as well as meteorological data, over the conterminous United States for 40 years at a 4-kilometer level.

“So anytime you take a drink of water, there’s a possibility we may have some influence,” Falgout said.

Because of the complexity of studying water at such a large scale, the overall topic has occupied a good chunk of HPC time. When ARC calculated research usage from 2016 through August 2023, water has accounted for the most compute hours on HPC systems at 39.4%, followed by hazards at 24.1%, CSS at 15.8%, ecosystems at 13.4% and others at 7.3%.

USGS Supercomputer Usage
This graph shows the number of compute hours on the USGS Supercomputers for Fiscal Years 2019-2023. 

Staying Ahead of Computing Demand

With continuous innovations in science, ARC is constantly planning for the next system to handle the demand. But that wasn’t always the case. Gallagher said he remembered being blind-sided by scientists at a strategy meeting in 2006. They expressed disappointment in the USGS’ lack of computing ability. “I felt like I was hit by an oncoming train,” he said. “They had difficulty managing data, finding data, transferring data, running their computer models.”

In response, Gallagher and others started increasing computer capabilities incrementally and planning for what eventually became a formal process to acquire high-performance computers in 2013.

Since even high-performance computers become obsolete over time, each system is planned for a five-year lifespan. When a new computer comes on board, the oldest system is decommissioned. Falgout said ARC is budget-minded, continuously balancing costs and scientific needs.

“Hovenweep is an amazing opportunity for USGS Science Centers and Mission Programs to lower the barrier of entry into high-performance computing,” said Paul Exter, USGS Chief of Technology, who also traveled to Sioux Falls for Hovenweep’s dedication. “These systems are highly complicated, and providing an enterprise service greatly reduces the level of effort USGS needs to expend.”

The USGS offers training courses for scientists to learn more about using the HPCs for their work.

Hovenweep was named after the national monument spanning the Utah-Colorado border, the new supercomputer ranks is estimated to rank among the top 1,000 computers in the world.

A Human Touch

Just days after the HPC’s dedication, on August 19, USGS Director David Applegate commemorated EROS’ 50th anniversary with a speech that illustrated the how the supercomputer—the latest tool in the USGS toolkit—will eventually touch people’s daily lives.

“At the USGS, our whole mission is about delivering actionable information that can be put to use to address difficult environmental, resource and public safety challenges, and that is what Landsat and EROS is all about,” said Applegate.

Applegate signed the side of Hovenweep, which also bore the signatures of Gallagher, Doucette, Falgout and others on its sides in silver ink around the edges of what was then a blank rectangle. An image of a painted hand from the computer's namesake, Hovenweep National Monument, now fills the empty space.

Hovenweep National Monument spans the Utah-Colorado border, centered around several stone structures that were abandoned for no known reason around A.D. 1300. In fact, “Hovenweep” means “deserted valley” in Paiute/Ute. The park is also designated a dark sky destination by the International Dark Sky Association.

It seems somehow appropriate, then, that the new USGS computer has already sought to interpret data from projects that range from water availability to astrogeology.

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