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Sun donates $3.6 million for high-performance computer cluster

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University, with a $3.6 million gift from Sun Microsystems, is giving recycled PCs new life as a computer cluster that makes high-performance computing power available in undergraduate classes.

Jamie Jennis
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James Bottum, vice president for information technology, said that the project "delivers virtually unlimited computing power to undergraduate classrooms, turning them into high performance classrooms." Bottum announced the gift Saturday (11/1) during the Purdue President's Council brunch in the Memorial Union ballrooms.

In addition to the Sun Mircosystems gift, Morgan J. Burke, director of intercollegiate athletics, announced a $1.2 million gift from Cisco Systems Inc. that is enabling Purdue sports fans to access real-time football game data via wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) and also is expanding the university's information technology infrastructure. Officials from Cisco and Sun will be on hand at the pregame President's Council brunch.

Purdue President Martin C. Jischke said, "Using public-private partnerships to develop high-technology computer applications provides opportunities for our faculty and students to move from theory to contemporary business practice, while at the same time building out the university's information technology infrastructure."

The high-performance classroom project is part of a larger project called PETE (Purdue Electronic Teaching Environment), referencing university sports mascot Purdue Pete.

"The objective of PETE is to build an electronic educational grid that provides educational resources, including educational software and course management tools," Bottum said. "The grid also provides students and faculty with the power to use these tools anywhere and anytime to further the university's learning mission."

David P. Moffett, Purdue's associate vice president for research computing, said, "This networked computing power unbounds the undergraduate classroom so teachers don't have to limit the size of the projects they assign by what a given computer can do. We have been developing this resource for two years, and the Sun donation has really given the project a shot in the arm. No one, to our knowledge, has attempted anything like this on the scale that we have at Purdue."

The project, using what IT pros call a Beowulf-style, parallel-computer approach, started more than two years ago when Bottum said computer classroom applications should be bounded only by the imaginations of faculty, not by budgets.

"Many think of using high-performance computing for computational science and research," Bottum said. "At Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), our mission is to support learning as well as discovery. While research is critical, we're also building for the classroom."

Bottom said ITaP presented the idea of the high-performance classroom to Sun, and the company arranged, through gifts and substantial discounts, for Purdue to acquire five new Sun Fire 6800 servers and two refurbished Enterprise 10000s, with a total gift value of $3.6 million. Hewlett-Packard Co. also donated three servers valued at $100,000.

The computer cluster of 1,008 recycled PCs, dubbed "Scrap Iron," is housed in the university's Rosen Center for Advanced Computing.

Bottum said, "Together, the machines combine to provide an 'on-demand' computing environment for Purdue students and faculty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

He said this kind of undergraduate access is unusual.

"At a research university, graduate students and faculty are first in line for high-performance computing," Bottum said. "Through a combination of the Linux cluster and refurbished computers from Sun and HP, we're able to provide high-performance computing power in our undergraduate classrooms."

Moffett says a computer cluster is generically defined as a set of computers connected with a high-speed network that allows them to work in a coordinated fashion. A Linux cluster runs on free or inexpensive software but can still deliver high-performance computing at a fraction of the cost of a supercomputer.

From Sun Microsystems' point of view, the Purdue project represents a demonstration of what its equipment can do.

One of the early adopters of the Linux-cluster technology at Purdue was Richard Paul, professor and chair of the visual and performing arts department, who teaches an animation class each spring semester. Undergraduates from a number of majors, including art, interior design and performing arts, take the class.

"Previously, my students could only do what I'd describe as 'proof' animations – small, low-resolution and not presentation quality," Paul said. "With access to this computing power, the students will be able to ship their software files of instructions to the Linux cluster, and it will come back in three or four hours with modeling, lighting and animation. Students will get to experience the whole thing in terms of scale and presence, and they can do longer animations."

As someone who works with one foot in the art world and one foot in technology, Paul appreciates the concept of the recycled computer cluster.

"I find the use of recycled machines, technology that doesn't have to be thrown away every three years, an innovative solution to the need for computer power," Paul said. "This is not just throwing money at a problem. It's more sensitive and aware. Sometimes the simplest changes can make profound differences. This is a most elegant solution."

John P. Campbell, ITaP's associate vice president for instructional computing systems, is in charge of the labs where the PCs used to build the Linux clusters came from.

"These 2- to 3-year-old machines still have value," Campbell said. "We get them out of the waste stream and make them work. Not many undergraduates anywhere have access to thousand-node computer clusters."

Moffett and Campbell say the budget-friendly recycling project will be even friendlier in the future.

Campbell says, "In the future we can update the Linux clusters from our labs on a regular schedule. It also changes how we buy computers for our labs. For example, we paid $40 extra per lab computer this summer so the recycled computers will have more (RAM) memory slots that allow us to expand our cluster capability by a factor of two when we recycle the units."

Moffett says there also are advantages on the research side. The Linux clusters are actually better at certain kinds of computing than the university's supercomputer.

"We're also freeing up very expensive information-technology resources to do the things only they can do," Moffett says.

Writer: Mike Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Sources: James Bottum, (765) 496-2266,

David Moffett, (765) 496-3886,

Richard Paul, (765) 494-3058,

John Campbell, (765) 496-3952,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Related Web sites:

News release on Cisco Systems Inc. gift
Information Technology at Purdue


Jamie Jennis, a student worker at Information Technology at Purdue, works with the recycled computers in Linux clusters that work with Sun Microsystem servers to deliver high-performance computing power to Purdue's undergraduates. Jennis is a senior computer science and mathematics major from New Rochelle, N.Y. Purdue and Sun officials said the 1,008-node cluster is the largest of its kind. (University News Service photograph/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at

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