Purdue engineers 'punch up' computer simulationsWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The heart of the Midwest is becoming the hub of activity in a new computer research project that benefits education, research and industry around the globe.
The Purdue University Network Computing Hubs, or PUNCH, provide access to research-grade computer simulation laboratories. Users can simulate various electronic processes -- from building a high-speed transistor to designing a new computer architecture -- with computer tools that typically are unavailable commercially.
From almost anywhere in the world, students and researchers can use the World Wide Web to access PUNCH and run simulations. Because programs are run within the PUNCH system, users do not face the hassle of installing and maintaining the programs on their own machines.
Users have accessed the hubs more than one million times and have run nearly 57,000 simulations over the past three years.
Students at Purdue and other universities use PUNCH to simulate building an electronic circuit for homework assignments; academic researchers around the country work out the kinks of making a new type of computer chip before actually doing it in the lab; and professional engineers taking graduate courses via television and the Internet have access to the latest research tools without setting foot on a campus.
"Our philosophy was to create something that would use current-day technology and be immediately useful to students and researchers, while at the same time be capable of taking advantage of new developments in network technology as they occur," says Mark Lundstrom, Purdue professor of electrical engineering and co-director of PUNCH. "Sophisticated computer simulation capabilities exist in many places, but many are underutilized because the people who need them to solve problems don't know they exist, or because they don't have the time or expertise to acquire and install them on their own computers.
"All you need to run a simulation through PUNCH is a personal computer with a Web browser installed. Users don't need a very powerful machine, because the work is done by PUNCH machines."
The Purdue team recently received funds from the university to develop a statewide "network computer" that will use PUNCH to establish hubs at Purdue campuses in Indianapolis and Hammond.
"This will be a unique software infrastructure, a network of hubs linking regional campuses," says Professor Jose Fortes, a computer engineer who co-directs PUNCH with Lundstrom. "The regional campuses teach many classes for practicing engineers in industry who find it impractical to come on campus in the evenings and spend time in a computer lab. PUNCH will provide a statewide computer lab that students can access from home. Some programs will reside here on machines at the main campus, others on machines at regional campuses, but that won't matter to the user."
The National Science Foundation has awarded a $1.4 million, three-year grant to Purdue and three other universities to develop a national and possibly global network for computational electronics using the PUNCH infrastructure. This Distributed Center for Advanced Electronics Simulations, or DESCARTES, is a partnership between Purdue and Arizona State, Stanford and the University of Illinois. PUNCH will make it possible for the four partners to share simulation programs and computer resources. PUNCH also will make these tools, with capabilities not found in commercial programs, available to the international electronics research community.
Lundstrom says the educational benefits of the hub are tremendous.
"It's rare to see research-grade tools being used as an integral part of the curriculum," he says, "and we're teaching material we simply couldn't before. Also, because most students have network access from their home or dorm, they can do their assignments there, instead of waiting in line at 2 a.m. for a computer workstation on campus."
The Purdue team is exploring the educational applications of network computing in two NSF-funded projects that involve five different universities.
For example, Fortes and his colleagues at Northwestern University and Chicago State University use PUNCH in computer design and programming courses that are taught on campus, and, in some cases, also telecast across the country to engineers in industry.
"These distance students may not have access to the computers and software available to on-campus students, which prevented us from exposing them to the tools and techniques used in research," Fortes says. "The Purdue hubs bring these tools to anywhere students have a Web browser, and to my knowledge, no other university or distance-learning class has this capability."
In addition to education, computer simulation now plays a central role in research and engineering, Lundstrom says.
"For example, with semiconductor manufacturing plants costing more than a billion dollars, experiments with new computer chip technology are very expensive," he says. "Much of the design and optimization of a new manufacturing process can be done with computer simulation. These tools are just as important in research, where simulations are often used to interpret experiments or suggest new ones to perform."
Many experimentalists are not familiar with running simulations and operating computer systems, but they all have PCs on their desks that run a browser, Lundstrom says. PUNCH makes advanced simulation capabilities available to these kinds of users.
Nirav Kapadia, one of Fortes' doctoral students in electrical engineering, has been responsible for developing the underlying software behind PUNCH. As one of the system administrators, he also monitors who is using the simulations. In addition to students and instructors at other universities, the hub receives requests from educators and researchers all over the world who want to use the programs, Kapadia says.
"A group of graduate students in Berkeley (California) ran homework problems using one of the tools, and some undergraduates in Israel discovered the hub and used it for homework as well," he says. "We have regular users from at least six countries."
In addition to specialized tools written and provided by researchers, commercial programs also are available on the hub, but use of these is restricted to educational purposes.
"We have been approached by companies with an interest in performing simulations on a 'pay-per-use' basis," Lundstrom says. "We are not in the business of providing this type of service to industry, but it seems destined to happen in the future."
Lundstrom says companies with offices in different states or countries would benefit from using a hub concept to share simulations and design tools.
"The hub eliminates the need to install and support sophisticated, expensive software at multiple locations," he says. "Design tools, data and computing resources can be shared globally."
One of the next areas Fortes and his colleagues will investigate is a concept called mega-computing, which is basically a computer consisting of a collection of computers.
"Some computer problems are so large-scale that parts of the program may best be run on different types of machines," Fortes says. "Ideally, a user could go to a hub, input the problem, and the hub system would automatically coordinate the execution of different components of the problem across suitable machines. One part might be completed at a site in California, another in Indiana, but to the user, it's all transparent."
The PUNCH project began in 1994 with a grant from the AT&T Foundation to develop the software infrastructure. In addition to NSF, the project also has been supported by the Semiconductor Research Corp., a consortium of several semiconductor manufacturing companies.
Sources: Mark Lundstrom, (765) 494-3515; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nirav Kapadia, (765) 494-9159; e-mail, email@example.com
Jose Fortes, (765) 494-3646; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Amanda Siegfried, (765) 494-4709; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org