The Department History of Computing

Circa: 1974

Departmental Computing facilities in 1974 were described in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research’s first brochure: 

“Laboratory staff and students often find the computer to be helpful in their research. The major campus computer is an IBM 360/75. When time and memory requirements are not too large this computer is sufficient. Although it is located only one block from the laboratory, many problems are coded and run without leaving the building. One simply picks up the telephone, dials the appropriate number, and connects the telephone receiver to one of the laboratory’s portable terminals. Programs, data and messages can then be sent to and received from the IBM 360/75. This is called ‘remote access’”.

The primitive beginning of today’s Internet was also around in those days: 

“Remote access is also used to connect to computer resources on the ARPANET, a communications network between a number of computer systems and users throughout the United States. This network, initiated by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense, allows users access to computer resources not available in their own vicinity. This is accomplished via high speed transmission lines that give transfer rates up to 50,000 bits of information per second. In comparison, telephone transfer rates typically go up to 300 bits of information per second.”

Circa 1982:

By the early 1980’s the computing facilities had grown. Department computing facilities in 1982 were summarized in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society article announcing the creation of the Department:

“Faculty and students have access to the CYBER 175 computer on campus through computer terminals located in the department. The terminals are also linked to the computer and data banks at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In cooperation with a few other units on campus, the Department has established a sophisticated interactive graphicsdisplay and image processing system built around a VAX 11-780 computer, which is linked to the LS 11/23 and other computers. A number ofother graphicsdevices and alphanumeric terminals are available, including a COMTAL color image display. This system will be used for displaying and further processing current weather data and will be invaluable for manipulating the vast amount of data available for observational programs and numerical models.

Circa 1990:

By 1990, computinghad changed significantly. Here is how Department computing facilities were described in the 1990 DAS brochure:

“The Department Computer Laboratoryhouses the Departmental computer system, which consists of two high speed minicomputers with ample input-output disk storage devices: an HP-835S and a DEC Microvax II. The HP835-S is a powerful mid-range computer based on the principles of ‘Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC)’ and is ideally suited to both the computing intensive jobs and graphics applications often encountered in the atmospheric sciences. These computers allow Department personnel to routinely make diagnostic and prognostic analyses of real time weather data for teaching and research. An additional laboratory serves and the central computer use area for research activities and contains a number of workstations, microcomputers, and graphics terminals all networked to the Department computer system. The latter is also connected to the mainframe computers of the University, as well as to national supercomputers, such as the one located at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Circa 1998:

The Internet arrived in the Department in the 1990s. In the 1998 student handbook, Department computer facilities were described in this way:

“The Departmental computers range from small personal computers such as a variety of Apple Macintoshes (found on nearly everyone’s desk) and IBM PC-compatibles (a small but growing minority) to large UNIX servers. In addition, there are about a dozen high quality laser printers plus some other devices such as color printers and scanners. Nearly all of these components are interconnected by an extensive Ethernet network such that they can communicate easily with each other as well as the outside world, including the rest of campus and virtually anywhere else on the Internet.

Each of the personal computers is loaded with a variety of software. Most have some form of word processing software such as Writenow or Microsoft Word, drawing and graphics programs such as MacDraw, and communication software such as NCSA Telnet which allows one to “log into” UNIX and other host computers, Eudora which makes it easy to send and receive email, and Netscape which allows one to access multimedia from the World Wide Web (WWW) via the Internet.

In addition to the standard software, many of these personal computers have a wide variety of additional software installed depending on their use . Some of this software is “public domain” software which may be freely installed on any machine. Other software is commercial software for which the Department had to purchase a license in order to use on a particular machine.

The Department also operates a number of UNIX-based computers (often called ‘Workstations’) of various brands and types (Mostly Hewlett-Packard (HP) brand). Some are for department-wide use and others are specifically for the use of the research group of a particular member of the faculty. Some have graphics display terminals attached to them which use the X11 protocol (often called X-windows). All are remotely accessible over the network from other computers including your desktop computer.”

Circa 2008:

By 2008, we had moved to the new computer cluster concept. Here is how our computer systems were described in a 2008 brochure: 

“With more than 2.5 computers per person, the department maintains a capable and extensive computing infrastructure as this is a vital component of all of its educational, research and outreach endeavors. All graduate students, staff, and faculty members generally have a desktop computer, usually a Windows PC or Mac. There is a departmental computer lab for hands-on class exercises, computers and display projectors in each of the classroom areas and wireless access throughout the buildings. An up-to-date high-capacity network connects these to various departmental computing resources including e-mail, file and web servers, resources provided by the campus as well as our Linux-based research computing systems. 

These research systems includes the department’s ever-expanding computing cluster , dozens of terabytes worth of storage, other departmental systems and a number of systems specific to each faculty member’s research group. These systems are used for numerical simulations, analysis and modeling of atmospheric processes ranging from the formation of individual ice crystals to century long climate simulations over the globe and are used for storing, analyzing and visualizing the results. We receive and process a large quantity of real-time meteorological data and numerical forecasts from a variety of sources including agencies like NOAA, UCAR, international sources and other peer institutions. These are available for visualization with a variety of tools to aid in the understanding of current weather events and case studies of recent major events. We have a synoptic lab that is used for weather briefings. The synoptic lab includes a 15 panel “electronic map wall” ,which normally displays current weather maps but is used for research visualization purposes as well, as is our 3D Geowall display. Additionally we have access to the resources of the University as well supercomputing centers, such as those at NCSA (which is on campus), NCAR and others. Because computers are only good when they work and you understand how to use them, the department maintains a dedicated computer support staff which is responsible for maintaining everything and personally assisting users with problems, questions and accomplishing their research goals.”