By Tom Still

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a supercomputer called Titan is quietly flexing its digital muscles. With a peak performance of 20 petaflops (more on that term in a moment), Titan is nearly 10 times more powerful than its predecessor and destined to become one of the U.S. scientific community’s top computational tools.

It’s also largely made in Wisconsin.

All of the nearly 19,000 compute nodes in Titan were designed and built by Cray Inc., the supercomputer company born in Chippewa Falls. Cray’s team there and St. Paul, Minn., also designed and built software and other components that accelerate computing through a graphic processing unit from NVIDIA, a California-based leader in computer graphics.

The combination creates 20 petaflops of computing power, with one petaflop equaling 1,000 trillion calculations per second.

Who needs that kind of horsepower? The scientific world, which includes researchers who are designing and operating computer models for research on climate change, biofuels, astrophysics, nuclear energy, combustion, materials science and drug development, to name a few disciplines. Those computer models dramatically increase accuracy while taking valuable time out of the process of finding answers to global problems.

It’s an example of the rise of “big data,” a term that loosely describes society’s ever-increasing thirst for data storage, high-speed computing and parallel programming, which allows non-related databases to interact in powerful ways.

Last week’s launch of Titan at Oak Ridge illustrates how Wisconsin researchers and companies are linked to big data, either as providers of systems that implement its use or as end users. Other recent examples:

— The UW-Madison is working with the National Science Foundation and private partners to upgrade how the campus will handle its surge in big data – an effort that could become a model for others. Over the next two years, the campus will upgrade hardware, software and other resources to deal with big data research projects. Examples include neutrino particle detection through the IceCube Project at the South Pole, the collection of satellite weather data by the Space Science and Engineering Center, and the particle physics research conducted by UW scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

— Scientists at the Morgridge Institute for Research, Indiana University, the University of Illinois and the UW-Madison have received a $23.6-million grant to address threats arising from the development process of software used in technology ranging from the national power grid to medical devices. Called the Software Assurance Marketplace, the effort will include the ability to continuously test up to 100 open-source software packages and analyze more than 275 million lines of code per day.

— The non-profit Milwaukee Institute is helping to build a regional cyberstructure in southeast Wisconsin to assist research universities and other institutions meet their needs for high-performance computing.

— Wisconsin-based companies such as TDS, which owns Vital Support Systems (formerly TEAM Companies) continue to build and fill data centers in Wisconsin and Iowa, in part because both states are geologically stable and shielded from traumatic weather events such as “Superstorm Sandy” that crippled the East Coast. Such centers are primary storehouses for digital data as well as important backups.

— In addition to the Titan project, Cray is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, Sandia National Laboratory and the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation. It is also part of the National Center for Supercomputing Application’s “Blue Waters Project,” a supercomputer that is expected to be among the most powerful in the world when launched on the University of Illinois campus next year.

From gaming to genomics, and from physics to meteorology, the world’s use of digital data is growing geometrically. Wisconsin researchers and companies are a part of keeping pace with big data, which offers new tools for solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.