New supercomputer updates research abilities

by David Hyland

With the University’s purchase of a new $9 million supercomputer from IBM this spring, officials hope to catapult the University back into supercomputing preeminence.
The new state-of-the-art machine is not only a focal point of University President Mark Yudof’s Digital Technology Initiative, but a tool that enables University researchers to perform more complex experiments more quickly and easier as well.
“I believe that the University is the best academic supercomputing center in the world,” said Donald Truhlar, chemistry professor and director of the University’s Supercomputing Institute.
IBM SP boasts twice the power of “Deep Blue,” the supercomputer that defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov last year. It has 256 processors and 92 gigabytes of memory, and the computer allows for fast execution of problems.
Although he would not comment on the purchase price, Truhlar said the University worked out a discount with IBM to alleviate the hefty price tag so that the computer is partially a gift.
The University is no stranger to using supercomputers; in 1981, it became the first university to acquire one. But as technology advanced and demand increased, the University’s resources were rendered inadequate.
In recent years, the University has increasingly bought time for researchers on the supercomputers operated by the privately-owned Minnesota Supercomputer Center. The University also purchased two lesser-powered supercomputers. But last spring, the University decided it was time to buy a top-of-the-line supercomputer of their own.
Currently, the Institute is used by researchers from 37 departments in 11 colleges. Truhlar said researchers use the computers for everything from designing polymer or enzyme simulations to creating engineering and aerodynamic models, or for answering applied mathematical questions.
To get access to the supercomputer, researchers fill out grant proposals discussing what they want to research. The researchers then get an allotted amount of time on the supercomputer. While projects often take months to complete, the amount of time spent by each researcher varies.
Truhlar himself uses the supercomputer to examine the process of chemical reactions.
Chris Cramer, associate professor of chemistry, uses supercomputers to create models of chemical reactions in order to understand the process or to predict possible results. Specifically, his research focuses on how to degrade chemical weapons agents in order to optimize the destruction of toxic material without leaving any by-products.
“It’s my tool, it’s my laboratory, it’s how I do my experiments,” said Graham Candler, associate professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics.
Candler uses supercomputers to create numerical simulations of high temperature flows. In practical application, the models simulate the entry of spacecraft into the atmosphere.
“You can’t fly a whole lot of spacecraft into the atmosphere of Mars and see what happens,” Candler said. “The only way you can do that is through numerical simulations.”
Both researchers said the new machine will greatly enhance their capabilities and enable them to compete with other researchers.
“This keeps (the Supercomputing Institute) on the cutting edge,” Cramer said. “This is really the next generation machine. It means we can do bigger problems, we can use bigger molecules and we can use more trustworthy levels of theory.”
Since beginning preliminary diagnostic tests in early June, Truhlar said the new supercomputer should be operating by July 1, when a majority of the research grants are scheduled to begin.
Currently located at the Minnesota Supercomputer Center building at 1200 Washington Ave. SE, the supercomputer is expected to move to Walter Library upon the completion of the Digital Technology Center in January 2001.