Hormel Institute buys supercomputer

The computer will be used to boost cancer research as part of a $24 million expansion.

Emma Carew

The Hormel Institute, a cancer research department of the University based in Austin, said last week it purchased a supercomputer as part of its $24 million expansion project.

The Blue Gene/L supercomputer, produced and marketed by IBM, will be used to expand cancer research at the institute, associate director Ann Bode said.

“We’re really committed to having state of the art technology for our researchers,” she said, “and the Blue Gene is part of that.”

The Blue Gene/L supercomputers debuted in 2004, Blue Gene software program manager Mike Good said.

The system comes in refrigerator-sized racks, housing about 1,000 processors, he said.

“If you put enough racks together,” Good said, “you can make the system the world’s fastest supercomputer.”

The Hormel Institute has purchased one rack, IBM spokeswoman Mary Welder said.

Researchers will be able to use the Blue Gene technology to speed the rates of testing chemical compounds for reactions with cancer cells, Bode said.

“We can screen a chemical library of three to five million compounds within just a few days and find potential inhibitors for those proteins,” she said. “The advantage is if you tried to screen those three million (without a supercomputer), you couldn’t do it in your lifetime.”

The company does not release specific prices for each computer, and the Hormel Institute would not confirm the price it paid for the Blue Gene/L rack.

Bode said the racks usually cost between $1 million and $1.5 million, adding the Hormel Institute got “a good deal” on the Blue Gene rack it purchased.

The Blue Gene/L purchased by the Hormel Institute was the first sale of Blue Gene technology within the state, Bode said.

“It’s the potential for more quickly finding drugs and small molecules that can be used for cancer treatment – accelerated by a bazillion-fold,” she said.

The purchase of the supercomputer comes at the tail end of a multiyear expansion project slated to conclude in the fall of 2008, Bode said.

Construction for the new 40,000-plus foot laboratory facility began in 2006 and will end with a grand opening ceremony in October of this year, she said.

“The expansion is a huge deal for us, because it’s going to double in size,” Bode said of the institute’s staff and physical space.

The institute will host 200 international scientists for a three-day World Cancer Research Conference in October, following the grand opening, she said.

Good, the software program manager, graduated from the University in 1987 with a computer science degree. He said the Blue Gene technology “is user-friendly and accessible,” and that more and more people across different industries are realizing this.

“Blue Gene is not going to be like how everyone buys a laptop,” he said. But any industry that uses large amounts of data or computations could utilize the supercomputer.

“Think about putting a thousand PCs in the space of a refrigerator,” Good said. “Really, the key in this whole architecture is how those processors are connected and networked together.”