Booting up

World's fastest supercomputer is getting ready to power on in Houston

DownUnder GeoSolutions, which has its U.S. headquarters in Houston, is getting ready to flip the switch on what is being billed as the world's fastest supercomputer. Photo via DUG.com

An Australian company that provides geoscience and tech services to the oil and gas industry is gearing up to flip the switch in Katy on what's being billed as the world's fastest supercomputer.

At the 20-acre Skybox Houston data center campus in the Energy Corridor, DownUnder GeoSolutions is assembling a 15-megawatt data center that will house more than 40,000 servers to create the world's fastest supercomputer. Houston is the U.S. headquarters for DUG.

The data center will power a cloud computing service, known as DUG McCloud, that's tailored to the geosciences sector. The company says DUG McCloud will supply "enormous" computing capacity and high-performance storage for DUG's cloud business.

Construction on DUG McCloud — which has been delayed due to recent heavy rains — is set to be completed in April, according to the company's blog.

"DUG McCloud will be available to external companies to expand their computational resources on demand," the company says on its blog. "In addition, the cloud service will give clients access to DUG's proprietary software, with the option of source code, to accelerate their research, development, and production."

DUG McCloud is being touted as the world's biggest cloud computing service for the oil and gas industry. Among its prospective clients are global oil companies, government-owned oil producers, seismic contractors, and data companies.

"DUG McCloud is offering a wide range of companies the opportunity to significantly accelerate their oil and gas projects with cutting-edge geophysical software, stacked with extraordinary supercomputer power and services," Mick Lambert, the newly hired manager of DUG McCloud, said in December.

So, just how extraordinary will DUG's new supercomputer be?

DUG's equipment — contained in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph — will offer more than 250 single-precision petaflops of computing speed, or 250,000 trillion calculations per second.

For now, the world's fastest supercomputer is Summit, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and IBM. Its top speed is 200 petaflops. Summit operates at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Over the long term, DUG envisions its data center being able to handle exascale computing, capable of generating at least 1 quintillion calculations per second. A quintillion has twice as many zeroes as a billion does. China is set to debut the world's first exascale supercomputer in 2020 — a year ahead of the first one to be established in the U.S., a $500 million public-private project called Aurora being developed by the Department of Energy and Intel.

DUG's deal for its data center in Katy represents the largest data center transaction in the Houston area's history. Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio have long overshadowed Houston as hotspots for data center activity in Texas.

Matthew Lamont, co-founder of DUG, said in October that the company conducted an "exhaustive" search for the data center. "Houston was a natural choice," he said, "given the low cost of power and the fact that Skybox had the available infrastructure ready to go."

A unique feature of DUG's data center is how the servers will be cooled. The company's patent-pending DUG Cool system will immerse all of the servers in custom-designed tanks filled with an environmentally friendly cooling fluid.

DUG says this fluid enables condensed water-cooling chillers to be used to cool the servers, rather than server fans and refrigeration units. This will reduce energy consumption by 45 percent compared with traditional air-cooled systems, according to DUG.

"We like to call it the greenest cloud service in the world," Lamont said on DUG's blog. "DUG McCloud certainly offers more than just a silver lining."

The DUG center represents about 65 percent of the 23 megawatts of data center space under construction in the Houston area, according to a new report from commercial real estate services company CBRE.

"As high-performance computing continues to grow in importance to the energy sector, it is likely that additional latency-sensitive deployments will grow in the Houston market," Haynes Strader, senior associate at CBRE, says in a news release.

"Latency-sensitive" refers to the need for technology to act quickly in response to various events.

The coffee company announced three Houston-area solar projects. Courtesy of Starbucks

Coffee shop chain Starbucks is plugging into Texas' solar energy industry in a big way.

Two 10-megawatt solar farms in Texas owned by Cypress Creek Renewables LLC are providing enough energy for the equivalent of 360 Starbuck stores, including locations in Houston, Humble, Katy, and Spring. Separately, Starbucks has invested in six other Texas solar farms owned by Cypress Creek, representing 50 megawatts of solar energy; Santa Monica, California-based Cypress Creek is selling that power to other customers.

Three of the eight solar farms in the Texas portfolio are just outside the Houston metro area. One is in the Fort Bend County town of Beasley, while two of the projects are in Wallis and Wharton.

Starbucks already relies on a North Carolina solar farm equipped with 149,000 panels to deliver solar energy equivalent to powering 600 Starbucks stores in North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

"Our long-standing commitment to renewable energy supports our greener-retail initiative and demonstrates our aspiration to sustainable coffee, served sustainably," Rebecca Zimmer, Starbucks' director of global environmental impact, says in an April 15 release about its solar investment in Texas. "Now, we are investing in new, renewable energy projects in our store communities, which we know is something our partners and customers can appreciate for their local economy and for the environment."

The solar commitment in Texas aligns with Starbucks' goal of designing, building, and operating 10,000 "greener" company-owned stores around the world by 2025. The Seattle-based retailer expects this initiative — whose features include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and waste reduction — to cut $50 million in utility costs over the next 10 years.

U.S. Bank's community development division teamed up with Starbucks and Cypress Creek on the Texas solar farms. Chris Roetheli, a business development officer at U.S. Bank, says solar tax equity investments like those undertaken by Starbucks are growing in popularity among non-traditional investors.

"Starbucks is taking a unique approach — investing in solar farms regionally to support a specific group of its stores," Roetheli says in the announcement of the solar collaboration. "This is a new concept, and one that I think other companies are watching and may follow. It's an interesting model that allows them to talk specifically about the impact of their investments."

Starbucks' investment comes as Texas' stature in the solar energy sector keeps rising, along with the state's role in the wind energy industry.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 2,900 megawatts of solar capacity are installed in Texas. That's enough energy to power nearly 350,000 homes. Among the states, Texas ranks fifth for the amount of installed solar capacity.

Solar investment in Texas exceeds $4.5 billion, with about 650 solar companies operating statewide, the association says. The solar energy industry employs more than 13,000 full-time and part-time workers in Texas, according to the Texas Solar Power Association.

With more than 4 gigawatts (over 7,000 megawatts) of solar capacity expected to be added in Texas over the next five years, the national solar association reported in 2018 that "Texas is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As it stands now, though, solar supplies less than 1 percent of Texas' electricity.

A 2018 state-by-state report card for friendliness toward solar power assigned a "C" to Texas, putting it in 34th place among the states.

The report card, released by SolarPowerRocks.com, lauds the backing of big Texas cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in encouraging residential solar installations.

However, the report card adds, outlying areas in Texas lag their urban counterparts in support of residential solar, "and we'd like lawmakers here to codify more protections and goals for solar adoption, but in the most populous areas, the Lone Star [State] shines."