Purdue's partnership for building research supercomputers wins international award

June 3, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue is being recognized as a worldwide campus technology innovator for its Community Cluster Program, a partnership with faculty researchers that provides more computing power at a better price and puts it to work on research projects almost constantly.

Campus Technology Magazine has selected the Community Cluster Program for one of its 2010 Campus Technology Innovators Awards. The annual awards recognize higher education institutions for initiatives in educational technology that are models for other schools.

Purdue was one of 11 award winners selected out of nearly 500 nominations from an international collection of higher education institutions. The winners are highlighted on CampusTechnology.com and will be featured at the magazine's Campus Technology 2010 conference July 19-22 in Boston and in its August print edition.

Gerry McCartney, Purdue's vice president for information technology, chief information officer and Olga Oesterle England Professor of Information Technology, said Purdue is being recognized for its ability to reduce costs while continuing to deliver world-class resources for science and engineering.

"It would be simple to buy more equipment than others in order to deliver more resources, or conversely, to reduce our budget for IT," McCartney said. "But to reduce costs while simultaneously providing one of the nation's leading cyberinfrastructures for research requires new ways of working. That's why Campus Technology is recognizing Purdue with its Innovators Award."

The Community Cluster Program has increased the supercomputing power available at Purdue by more than 10 times since 2006. Researchers on and off Purdue's campus ran 6.9 million jobs and used nearly 67 million computer hours on the systems in 2009.

Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), Purdue's central information technology organization, built community clusters in 2008 and 2009 in high-tech barn-raisings by hundreds of staff members and volunteers. The clusters, both assembled before noon, saved more than $1.3 million versus standard research university pricing. With the savings from a group purchase, researchers can buy more computing capacity than they could purchase individually.

"If I ranked the advantages, the ready access to computational resources for the students in my lab is number one," said Joseph Francisco, a Purdue chemistry and earth and atmospheric sciences professor who focuses on how chemicals in the atmosphere play into global warming at a molecular scale.

A new community cluster is planned for the summer of 2010.

"The Community Cluster program is now a proven method for providing faculty with more computing power for the dollar and allowing researchers in a diversity of fields to concentrate on research rather than running a high-performance computing system," said John Campbell, associate vice president in charge of research computing for ITaP.

The community clusters have attracted faculty from aeronautics and agronomy, climate science and communications, medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, biology, engineering, physics, statistics, and more. The supercomputers are used in diverse ways, from modeling climate change and developing new medicines to engineering more efficient rocket engines and designing next-generation nanoscale electronics.

Faculty partners, who pool internal funding and external grants to fund a cluster, always have access to their portion of the machine and potentially to a lot more computing power. When parts of a community cluster are idle, they can be shared by other campus and external researchers. This keeps Purdue's clusters busy more than 95 percent of the time, maximizing return on University technology expenses.

Purdue staff members developed technologies enabling new clusters to be put in service rapidly, in less than a day in some cases. ITaP then administers and maintains the supercomputers, including, security, data storage and backups.

"Purdue's leadership in the field of high-performance computing is outstanding," said Geoff Fletcher, editorial director of Campus Technology. "The innovative Community Cluster Program, from its cooperative funding to its high-tech barn-raising approach, is truly impressive and a model for other institutions to follow."

Continuing Purdue's tradition of naming its clusters after campus computing pioneers, the 2010 cluster will be named "Rossmann" for Michael Rossmann, Purdue's Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences. Rossmann is a pioneer in using high-performance computing to deduce the structure of viruses and their component protein molecules, the better to address viral diseases ranging from the common cold to AIDS. 

Writer:  Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-494-8167, gkline@purdue.edu

Sources:  Gerry McCartney, (765) 496-2270, mccart@purdue.edu

                  John Campbell, (765) 494-1289, john-campbell@purdue.edu

Related websites:
2010 Campus Technology innovators: Winners

Purdue builds Big Ten's biggest computer, again

Purdue supercomputer unboxed and built by lunchtime