Operator of the most powerful computer in the country

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Buddy Bland is the director for the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

Buddy Bland

Project Manager for the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, Energy Department

Imagine trying to manage a computer system the size of a basketball court that uses as much power as a small town and needs its own small water utility company to cool its systems.

Welcome to Buddy Bland’s daily grind.

Bland, manager of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, is responsible for keeping the Titan supercomputer running for any group looking to harness the unit’s computing power.

On top of maintaining the system, Bland and his team pore over dozens of proposals a year from groups that want to use Titan for everything from product development to astrophysics research. Bland said only a few get selected.

“We want our users to take advantage of the fact that we have one of the most powerful computers in the world,” Bland said. “We want to see that power help solve problems that are important to government, industry and individuals.”

Bland has seen that power evolve since he started at Oak Ridge 30 years ago. Then, what was possible on a supercomputer is now only a fraction of the power the typical smartphone now wields.

“The amount of computing power we have today is just phenomenal,” he said. “It’s just permeated every aspect of our lives. [My phone] has 10 times more flash memory than we had disk space on those original Cray supercomputers.”

Bland attributes that change to the concentration on parallel computing, which has exponentially expanded the amount of computing power he thought was possible. He sees this focus funneling into the work that will come from the recently launched National Strategic Computing Initiative.

“At this point in time, there’s a real inflection that requires a tremendous amount of R&D to be able to get to an exaflop computer,” he said. “Business as usual will not get us there.”

Greg Otto