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July 20, 2009

Purdue builds Big Ten's biggest computer, again

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue is acting as if building world-class supercomputers is the newest college sport.

For the second year in a row, Purdue will build what is expected to be the Big Ten's largest campus computer, and as before, it will be running jobs by the end of the day.

"Last year we unboxed the components for our Steele supercomputer in the morning and we were doing science in the afternoon," says Gerry McCartney, chief information officer and vice president for information technology. "We expect to do the same thing with Coates, even though it is significantly larger."

"Coates," the new supercomputer, will be built from more than 10,000 computer cores, or processors, versus Steele's 6,500 cores.

Coates Cluster Install - Images by Purdue University

Coates is also expected to be the first internationally ranked academic supercomputer that is wired solely by superfast ten-gigabit network connections—allowing it to more easily handle the large amounts of data produced by research areas such as climate modeling and weather forecasting.


"Building supercomputers and other infrastructure needed for science and engineering is business as usual at Purdue," McCartney says. "We have developed both a business model and an operational method that allows us to build world-class computers to meet the increasing demand from our researchers."

On July 21, more than 200 information technology staff from Purdue will gather to construct the room-sized machine. They are expected to be joined by colleagues from the universities of Michigan and Iowa, as well Michigan State University and cross-state rival Indiana University, who will be observing and participating in the construction.

To generate excitement on Purdue's campus and elsewhere, the IT staff created a parody movie trailer, "Cores," which is a take off on the Pixar movie hit "Cars." The video can be seen on YouTube at

Coates is expected to rank in the top 50 supercomputers worldwide when the next ranking is published in November. Supercomputers are ranked according to an agreed-upon benchmarking system, and the list is published twice a year at  

The Big Ten's largest campus computer is currently at the University of Minnesota's Supercomputing Institute, which was ranked 59th in the June 2009 list, eclipsing Steele, which topped the list in its first benchmarking for the November 2008 Top 500 list. In that ranking, Purdue's Steele was the Big Ten's largest computer, ranked 105th in the world.

Supercomputing technology progresses rapidly, however, and six months later, in the June 2009 Top 500 list, Steele has moved from 105th to 196th.

"Even with Purdue’s international reputation as a leader in high performance computing, Coates isn't being built for bragging rights," McCartney says. "Top scientists and engineers require world-class resources in order to do their research, and with Coates we have a computer that is both powerful and capable of crunching massive data sets."

Coates will be built with 1,280 HP dual quad-core computer nodes using AMD processors, and Cisco and Chelsio network equipment.  It is expected to have a peak performance of 90 teraflops.

“Purdue University has deployed one of the world’s largest 10 GbE low latency, high performance computing infrastructures for scientific research, and we are honored that this strategic thought leader chose Cisco Nexus data center switches for a research facility of this magnitude,” said Soni Jiandani, vice president of marketing for Cisco’s Server Access and Virtualization Group.    “Cisco is pleased to partner with Purdue to efficiently use computing resources and enable researchers to push the boundaries of science.“

Coates, like Steele, is being built as a "community cluster," in which faculty on campus contributed research funds to fund the purchase, says John Campbell, associate vice president for Rosen Center for Advanced Computing at Purdue.

"Besides the cost savings from making a group purchase, the faculty can borrow computing cycles from other faculty when the other clusters are idle," Campbell says. "This gives the researchers more flexibility, and we also have unused computing cycles we can offer to the National Science Foundation's TeraGrid."

The new cluster is being named for Clarence L. “Ben” Coates, head of Purdue's School of Electrical Engineering (now Electrical and Computer Engineering) from 1973 to 1983. Coates retired in 1988 and died in 2000 at age 76. Coates was a driving force behind high performance computing at Purdue.

"Naming our research clusters after former Purdue IT leaders gives us a way to recognize the contributions of these great people," McCartney says.

Writer: Steve Tally, 765-494-9809,

Sources: Gerry McCartney, 765-496-2270,

John Campbell, 765-494-1289,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Note to Journalists: Photos from the Coates supercomputer installation will be available on July 21 from Andrew Hancock, A video teaser ad for the installation is available at

Purdue University is installing the Big Ten's largest supercomputer, which will be built from more than 10,000 processors, or cores. To celebrate the new computer and the speed of its unique high-speed internal connections, Purdue produced a short video, "Cores," which spoofs the Pixar hit "Cars." The video can be seen on YouTube at  (Purdue image /Michele Rund)

A publication-quality photo is available at


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