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Supercomputer lends status to Union College’s research efforts

Supercomputer lends status to Union College’s research efforts

Union College’s profile could get supercharged now that it has a new IBM supercomputer, allowing it

Union College’s profile could get supercharged now that it has a new IBM supercomputer, allowing it to do more in-depth research projects, say technology experts.

IBM donated the computer cluster, which is valued at $1 million, to install this summer in Union College’s new Peter Irving Wold Center. With a student body of just more than 2,000, Union is one of the smaller higher education institutions to have such a computer cluster, which will have 88 servers and 1,056 individual processors capable of doing 91⁄2 trillion operations per second. It has a storage capacity of 24 terabytes, which could hold, for example, about 8 million songs or a little more than 5,000 movies, according to the college.

“You’ll see lots of major university names that don’t have a cluster that’s the size of the one at Union,” said Jim Myers, director of the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations at RPI.

A cluster refers to a group of computers that are working together to serve as one individual machine. “Each of those PCs can talk to the other one very, very fast so you can spread one problem over many machines,” he said.

With 1,000 processors, the computer can tackle projects that much faster. “A student project that would have taken 1,000 years now takes one year,” he said.

Among some of the projects Myers thought would work on such a fast computer are examining how a computer chip works down to the atomic level; studying how all the different parts of an airplane work together and could be improved; or predicting weather patterns.

Union officials believe this will be the largest computer of its type at any liberal arts college in the country. Because Union is small, more students and faculty will be able to access the computing power, according to Myers. “The power available per student and faculty member is going to be tremendous there,” he said.

The definition of supercomputer is typically a computer that is the highest performer in its class and works at extremely fast processing speeds.

In Rensselaer County, RPI has its own supercomputer. It acquired its EServer Blue Gene L Solution in 2007 through a partnership between the state and RPI and was ranked as the 80th most powerful computer in the world in 2010, according to the Top 500 supercomputer list, which is compiled by worldwide computer experts every other year.

The typical Blue Gene measures about 61⁄2 feet tall by 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep and weighs 1,800 pounds. By contrast, Union’s computer cluster measures about 7 feet tall, 4 feet wide, 3 feet deep and weighs about 385 pounds.

Myers said he believed that Union has about half as many newer processors to get to the same total because of the increase in computer efficiency.

Computers are getting smaller, Myers noted, adding that what would have filled a medium-sized room four years ago in another five to 10 years will be fitting into a small closet or under a desk.

About 600 organizations use the RPI computer, including businesses such as Xerox and Corning, Myers said.

Rensselaer is a member of the Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation (CASC), which is a nonprofit advocacy organization of universities and computing centers.

Sue Fratkin, Washington liaison for the CASC, said most academic supercomputers are located in public institutions because of the significant amount of money required and the government will invest in the equipment.

“The state will look at this as part of state economic policy because you can attract industry,” she said.

These high-performance computers have traditionally been in larger colleges and universities. The smaller private higher education institutions traditionally have been more narrowly focused on liberal arts. However, within the last 10 years, research has become a more important component at liberal arts colleges. There are many uses for supercomputers for fields such as art and literature.

“You can take Shakespeare’s works and look at how many times he uses certain words and what the use of those terms mean,” she said.

Another example is the University of Texas exhibit of art created by a high-performance computer. Still another use is using computer modeling to manipulate images of the brain.

“You have surgeons now doing brain surgery that they would never have attempted years ago because now you can do modeling,” she said.

They have also been used in agriculture to model weather systems to help with planting.

Institutions that have these powerful computers can attract research dollars.

Other institutions in New York that have high-powered computers are SUNY Stony Brook, the University at Buffalo and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The University at Albany, for example, does not have a super computer, but has a number of high-performing clusters, said spokesman Karl Luntta. They are used in the fields of physics, anthropology, math and chemistry.

Among New York private colleges, Cornell University, Columbia University and New York University have supercomputers.

Union College had a connection to IBM because John E. Kelly III, IBM’s senior vice president and director of research, is a graduate of the class of 1971 and helped obtain the donation.

Fratkin believes that this machine will raise Union’s stature in the higher education world by allowing the faculty to do more research projects.

Therese McCarty, dean of the faculty for Union, agreed with that assessment.

“Undoubtedly this will help us attract faculty and students who are interested in doing this kind of work,” she said.

This will allow students to work on more data-intensive projects such as studying brain imaging or analyzing evolutionary biology. “If you can imagine doing a very complex simulation that you might normally have to leave running overnight on a regular computer, this could sort of do it in real time in class.”

College officials are already getting inquiries from several private businesses interested in renting computer time for research, according to McCarty. “People are very excited about it, calling attention to the kind of education that we’re providing here and the approach that we take,” she said.

“Part of the college’s mission is to have students — no matter what discipline they are studying — be familiar with how technology could be used in their field.”

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