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IBM Chosen to Construct UW’s Campus Cluster

June 27, 2012
Design schematic
An IBM drawing shows the schematic design for UW’s Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC), which will be housed in the IT Building. The high-performance computing center is expected to be operational sometime between August and October.

IBM has been chosen to design and build the University of Wyoming’s campus cluster or high-performance computing center, which may have as many as 100 UW faculty members using it for their computational science research starting this fall.

The campus cluster, formally known as the Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC), will use approximately 150 square feet (for five racks of computer equipment) in the UW Information Technology Building. Its capacity will be roughly 3 percent of the 75,000 CPUs or core hours available to UW at the National Center for Atmospheric Science (NCAR)-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Cheyenne. The CPU is essentially the brains of the computer, where most calculations take place.

“Overall, they (IBM) were the best value for the university,” says Tim Kuhfuss, UW’s director of research support for Information Technology. “Their price was competitive, and they certainly understand our view for a ‘condominium model’ and can deliver it.”

Nuts and bolts

Under a condominium model, the university will provide the basic infrastructure -- personnel to run it, basic networking and the basic computer architecture to keep it running -- for the campus cluster. In exchange, UW researchers will buy computing nodes (computers) or storage. That investment will come from faculty securing successful grant proposals, which are expected to include a request for funding for the computational resources needed for their particular research projects.

Under the broad strokes of the contract, UW will pay IBM $1 million for the initial hardware needed for the cluster. UW has budgeted $1 million annually in hardware in the second and third years of the contract, but may spend less or more depending on how much money UW researchers contribute.

The contract includes an option to renew annually -- in one-year increments -- for two additional years beyond the first three. IBM also offered the university access to its research divisions, which was “very attractive to our faculty,” Kuhfuss says.

“They were looking at this as a partner, not a customer-vendor relationship,” Kuhfuss says. “That was something that was important to us.”

“IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative focuses on a number of industries like energy. Research partnerships with universities are one of the key incubators to implement improvements in a variety of industries,” says Kent Winchell, IBM’s deep computing chief technology officer. “The UW School of Energy Resources, combined with the new university-wide plan for high-performance computing, aligns with IBM goals for a smarter planet. There also is synergy with the recent NSF/NCAR supercomputer located in Cheyenne for climate and environmental science.”

Initially, seven companies bid for the project. That number was reduced to three before IBM was chosen, Kuhfuss says. From an architectural standpoint, any of the three finalists qualified, but it was IBM’s desire to be a partner rather than just a vendor that made the difference, Kuhfuss says.

IBM will develop and test the system in its development lab in Boulder, Colo., before delivering the hardware and storage racks to UW’s IT Building sometime in July. Kuhfuss expects the campus cluster to be operational between August and October.

Advancing computational research on campus

The campus cluster, nicknamed “Moran” after Mount Moran in western Wyoming’s Teton Range, will serve two purposes.

First, it will enable atmospheric and earth sciences faculty members -- who will be able to use the NWSC -- to learn what to expect with the software. The cluster provides the opportunity for that group of faculty members to work out issues caused by scaling up parallel algorithms from tens or hundreds of processors to thousands of processors, before moving up to tens of thousands of processors on the NWSC supercomputer.

Second, the cluster will provide a research resource for UW research faculty members -- such as bioinformaticists, social scientists, pure mathematicians and theoretical physicists -- whose research doesn’t fall within the scope of the NWSC.

Initially, Kuhfuss says there will be a trial month or “free-range period,” most likely October, when any UW faculty member can use nodes (one node essentially equals 16 desktop computers) on the cluster to conduct research. But there will be an organized resource allocation system created for ARCC, says Tim Brewer, end user support manager of research support for information technology, who reports to Kuhfuss.

Jeff Lang, a high-performance computing architect and administrator, who also reports to Kuhfuss, will handle on-site, day-to-day operations of the ARCC.

Winchell, who graduated with a computer science degree from UW in 1981, recalled his undergraduate days when UW’s Laboratory Information System (LIS) purchased CDC cyber-computer systems, which he said were state of the art at that time.

“Access to those systems created a passion in me for using IT to solve complex problems,” Winchell says. “It’s exciting to see UW keep up the tradition of providing state-of-the-art systems to researchers and students.”

Listen to Tim Kuhfuss discuss UW's new IBM-designed high-performance computing center.Listen to Tim Kuhfuss discuss UW's new IBM-designed high-performance computing center.

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