Thursday, March 19, 2009

the inside tour

Today was an absolute banner day at work. I went over to the bureau of meteorology for a meeting and there were a couple of out of town visitors. At the end of the meeting the head of the flood warning division asked us (~6 people) if we wanted to go and see the weather center of the bureau office there.

In my experience, when anyone offers you a tour of anything, you should totally go for it. One time I was working out at Brookhaven Labs as a physics intern summer 1995. One day I got a tour of some of the equipment there, including inside the massive particle accelerators. In some ways, I feel like, excitement-wise, it's been all downhill since then. I suppose getting married was pretty cool, but we're talking about 30 foot tall magnets here!

So we went to the central hub where weather information and model output from all over the world comes to a point. There were some realtime paper weather maps hanging up (sometimes wonder if those are ironic or not...everything's now on the computer) and a couple large displays on the wall. One display was recent earthquakes, being worried about tsunamis. Yesterday Melbourne had an earthquake that many people felt but I was flying at the time.

I don't know if you've ever taken a tour of a weather forecasting office but lots of monitors are a must and three monitors are standard. Not what I was looking at, but the below is typical (was totally kicking myself for not having my camera today)

I'd probably guess there were about 60 monitors in an area about the size of our dining room. One thing caught my eye though - a 30" flatscreen monitor. Oh no, wait, I'm sorry, DUAL 30" flatscreens!

I asked if we could get a tour of their server room and they said sure. We got badges and went to the ground floor. We went through an area something like an airlock where our guide showed us their fire control system, where air is sucked through to a central bank of smoke detectors. I asked what came out if there was a fire and the response was "water" which was a surprise I guess.

Walked over a sticky jelly pad on the floor to get the dust off our shoes and we were in this cavernous hall with stacks and stacks of server boxes. This is not it, but this is a typical supercomputer:

I'd say the room was twice that large. There was lots of empty space because it turns out that the bureau just ordered a new supercomputer and was making space. And when I say "just bought" I mean the press release just came out today announcing it.

We also saw the systems that chilled water and then used that water to cool air for the room. We went back into the large rooms containing massive batteries for backup. Apparently there are blackouts all the time so they use the backups quite a bit. We saw these large machines with robotic arms whirred around quickly plucking storage cartridges off a wall and plugging them in. Also saw a computer that gave a readout of the status and temperature of every single plug, valve, cooler, so they could remotely manage things from upstairs (it's all automated).

Rows and rows and rows of servers in addition to their old supercomputer. Ironically enough, one of the people we were with knew where the hydrology section was and we walked over there. Through the grate, it looked a bit like the desktop PC I had in grad school. Hydrology usually commands so little respect/resources, especially next to weather folks, so this was a bit iconic. At my old work, our server was so old they didn't sell parts for it anymore.

Maybe it's a bit underwhelming not having pictures for the post, but it was super cool. These kind of tours were one of my favorite parts of my old work. Access to pristine watersheds that were locked off from the public. I got two behind-the-scenes tours of Hoover Dam (the scariest part was probably the deepest part of the dam at the bottom on the water side... there's all kinds of water seeping in). I also got to see "The Big Board" (for controlling water and power) at the Salt River Project, the water supplier for Phoenix. The emergency management operations center in Phoenix is also something to be seen. Literally black helicopters and underground concrete bunkers. The arizona state emergency management group also had a room that looked a lot like NASA's mission control with movie-theater sized screens showing TV from every channel and banks and banks of phones for emergencies.

My lab at Highett for CSIRO is also cool, although in a decrepit way sometimes. Entire buildings on campus are abandoned and sealed for having too much asbestos. But there's also large hangars where they do experiments that I don't that much about. Hopefully some day I'll get the tour before they finally decommission the site (in a year or two?) and move us somewhere else (which will double my commute no doubt).

No comments:

Post a Comment