A Cheyenne retrospective: Looking back on seven extraordinary years


Scientists now understand the Earth system far better than they did in 2017—thanks, in no small part, to Cheyenne, a unique supercomputer.

In its seven years of operations, the flagship supercomputer at the U.S. National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research (NSF NCAR) served thousands of scientists internationally.


"Cheyenne was an extraordinary success," said Thomas Hauser, director of the NSF NCAR Computational and Information Systems Lab (CISL). "Its leading-edge computing and data handling capabilities enabled scientists to gain new insights into the Earth system… [yielding] significant benefits for society."


Cheyenne supercomputer with the word "Cheyenne" painted on it

Now retired, the Cheyenne supercomputer advanced all aspects of Earth system science.

Operations launched in January 2017 at the NSF NCAR Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC). A 5.34-petaflops system, Cheyenne could perform 5.34 quadrillion calculations per second, tripling its predecessor’s power. At launch, it ranked as the 20th fastest supercomputer.

The system was originally slated to be replaced after five years. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, severely disrupting supply chains, Cheyenne was called upon to serve an additional two years—maintained and supported by a dedicated staff of about 20 NWSC engineers—until the necessary parts were available to build its successor. Last month, Cheyenne was finally replaced by Derecho, a 19.87-petaflops system tripling Cheyenne’s performance. 


Since 2017, Cheyenne delivered over 7 billion core hours, served over 4,400 users, and supported nearly 1,300 NSF awards. It played a key role in education, supporting more than 80 university courses and training events. Nearly 1,000 projects were awarded for early-career graduate students and postdocs. Perhaps most tellingly, Cheyenne-powered research generated over 4,500 peer-review publications, dissertations and theses, and other works.


Such numbers, however, tell only part of the story. What made Cheyenne especially valuable was how it illuminated Earth systems in ways that strengthen societal resilience.


Researchers used Cheyenne to run increasingly detailed models simulating complex processes and how they might unfold in the future. Scientists also harnessed its computing power to run multiple simulations, or ensembles, to quantify a given event’s probability—providing needed intelligence for policy and resource planning.


Examples of transformative research with Cheyenne include:



“Cheyenne was a special machine that has certainly earned its retirement,” said NSF NCAR Director Everette Joseph. 


To learn more about Cheyenne's service to the Earth system science community and view more examples of the science that Cheyenne enabled, see the full news story from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

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