NWSC staff adopt pandemic safety measures and keep Cheyenne system running

By Staff
05/15/2020 - 8:15am

Except for the ongoing teamwork, very little remains as it was before mid-March for NCAR staff who keep the mission-critical computing and data-storage systems running at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Cheyenne.

“The NWSC has an amazing, professional, adaptable and caring staff,” said Gary New, NWSC operations manager. “That’s no real surprise to me.”

What’s different now with pandemic-related safety procedures in effect? Some non-essential staff began working off-site on March 16, four days after the NWSC Visitor Center closed to the public, but on-site schedules changed dramatically. More than half of NWSC staff members are in facility operations jobs that can’t be done remotely, so their schedules have been scaled back.

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NWSC staff members (from left) Kenny Raff, Jeremy Vaughan and Michael Kercher moving a DDN disc drive rack out of quarantine for installation in the computer room. Photo credit: Gary New.

Instead of the usual staffing, the facility now has a minimum of three people on site at any given time in a single-coverage rotation. New says the minimum includes one member of CISL’s Cheyenne Admin Support Group (CASG), one from CISL Infrastructure Support Group Cheyenne (ISGC), and a contract security officer. New and two other managers – Jim Van Dyke and Michael Kercher – are on a three-week rotation, with each working in the building every third week and remotely for two weeks. A cleaning contractor comes in three days a week to clean and disinfect.

In addition to wearing masks and following other safety guidelines to avoid spreading the coronavirus, NWSC staff implemented another new procedure: Placing equipment in quarantine for 14 days upon delivery to the facility. “We chose that number as it was the standard maximum number of days the virus could survive on any surface,” New said.

Despite the changes and challenges, New said the NWSC staff have done a great job of adapting. For example, he said, “We were able to perform a major installation of data-storage equipment entirely by NWSC staff with remote support from the vendor. That was very different than any install had been performed before. It required a great deal of communication and trust from all parties, and it was very successful while minimizing risk to staff health and safety as well as to facility operations.”

The new schedules and facility closing also came in the midst of the procurement process for the next high-performance computing system to be installed at the NWSC. Instead of actual walk-throughs for vendors interested in submitting proposals, CISL staff presented and recorded a virtual site visit on April 24 and recorded several short walk-through videos in various parts of the facility.

“This took a good deal of effort to produce the videos, organize the virtual meeting, and ‘walk’ the vendors through the facility,” New said. “All the vendors have expressed they were very impressed by the process.”