Berkeley Lab opens gleaming supercomputer center

Berkeley Lab's Wang Hall - computer research facility - exterior photos taken July 6, 2015.
Berkeley Lab’s Wang Hall computer research facility, on a hillside overlooking the UC Berkeley campus, which officially opened on Nov. 12, 2015. Photo: Berkeley Lab, Roy Kaltschmidt

After more than a decade of planning, alternative sites and lawsuits, Berkeley Lab opened its new center for computational science Thursday. The 149,000 sq. ft. Wang Hall houses the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), one of the world’s leading supercomputing facilities for open science, and the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network, or ESnet, the world’s fastest network dedicated to science.

“It’s a miracle that we sit here today for the opening,” said Berkeley Lab deputy director Horst Simon at the dedication ceremony. He recalled that he had discussed the building with former lab director Stephen Chu in 2003. “This building will really change computational science.” 

Dila Wang, center,
The symbolic connection of the 400 Gbps optical network at the Wang Hall dedication ceremony. Left to right: DOE’s Barbara Helland, UC President Janet Napolitano, Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos, Dila Wang, Berkeley Lab Associate Director Kathy Yelick, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, Ipitek CEO Michael Salour, and Berkeley Lab Deputy Director Horst Simon. Photo: Berkeley Lab

In addition to NERSC and ESnet, Wang Hall hosts research programs in applied mathematics and computer science. Researchers from UC Berkeley will share space with Berkeley Lab’ Computational Research Division, working on computer science programs. “It’s a unique academic ecosystem,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at the dedication ceremony. Work in Wang Hall will focus on climate change, energy research and astrophysics, along with other areas of science.

The $143 million structure was financed by the University of California. It houses two Cray supercomputers — Edison and Cori (named after Gerty Cori, the first American woman to receive a Nobel prize in science) — which perform quadrillions of calculations per second. More than 6,000 researchers across the country are supported by the NERSC supercomputers. ESnet links 40 DOE sites across the country and researchers around the world. To support the transition of NERSC from downtown Oakland to Berkeley Lab, NERSC and ESnet have deployed a 400 Gigabit per second link to move the massive datasets.

NERSC Cray Cori supercomputer at Wang Hall - graphic panels installation - November 09, 2015.
NERSC Cray Cori supercomputer at Wang Hall. Photo: Berkeley Lab, Roy Kaltschmidt

According to Berkeley Lab, Wang Hall is one of the most energy-efficient computing centers anywhere. Open windows on the Bay-facing lower levels draw in the region’s natural air conditioning for the computing systems, eliminating the need for mechanical cooling. Heat captured from the computing systems in turn will be used to heat the building.

Because of Wang Hall’s proximity to the Hayward Fault, the computer room level has been designed to be significantly isolated from any movement. In the event of an earthquake, the entire building could move up to 18 inches without the computer floor and the systems on it moving at all.

Wang Hall is named in honor of Shyh Wang, a long-time professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley, who died in 1992. His widow, Dila Wang, spoke at the dedication.

A local group, Save Strawberry Canyon, had tried to stop construction of the building with a 2008 lawsuit claiming UC Regents acted improperly by certifying the environmental impact report and approving funding. The group, which included former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean, contended the building was in an environmentally sensitive landscape with threatened species, and it faced the risk of serious damage from earthquakes along the Hayward Fault. The suit did succeed in delaying the project for a court-ordered environmental review by the DOE. That review found “no significant impact,” and the project was cleared in 2011.

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