HOLYOKE — Five of the state’s top higher education institutions are pumping more than $5 million into the 13-year-old high-performance computing center as part of an expansion that executives say reflects growing demand for computing power that is crucial for academic research.
The Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center, located at 100 Bigelow St., provides key infrastructure for compute-intensive research projects on the campuses of the University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Boston and Northeastern Universities.
The investment will increase data center capacity to support several thousand new servers in the 90,000 square foot facility, while employing local electrical and mechanical contractors. This expansion is driven by the planned and steady growth of high-performance computing, which almost every branch of science and engineering relies on today.
James Cuff, executive director of the MIT Office of Research Computing and Data, explained that scientists refer to the center when scientific problems are too big to fit on an ordinary computer, or the time frame is too short, and it is necessary to speed up the time to deliver a scientific result.
“There are computing problems that are beyond the capacity of a small handful of computers, and what the (high performance center) provides are the facilities, the infrastructure and the professional services to be able to support hundreds of thousands of processes,” Cuff said. “University scientists can connect to (center) resources and they can run many tasks simultaneously, reducing the time it takes to deliver your science output.”
Cuff said university research computing offices are responsible for effectively ensuring machines are ordered, installed, configured and connected to appropriate university networks. It allows scientists to use the resources for their respective research and to interact with the center on their campuses and around the world.
“There are scientifically trained people who live and work in the center who can speak for the machines to make sure they’re available,” Cuff said. “Scientists don’t need to install their own machines; they don’t need to configure or maintain operating systems. These are all managed by these individual research computer offices.
Cuff said the high-performance computing and university research offices facilitate the process and aim to strengthen a collaborative scientific network, build community across the United States and around the world, and facilitate ways for scientists to to be able to consume the computation without further challenges.
“It’s more than the installation that allows for great sharing,” Cuff said. “If a faculty member at UMass Amherst, for example, wants to work with a researcher at MIT, we provide all the networking necessary to be able to quickly transfer data. The center allows scientists to connect to different university resources and analyze data.
Although the scientists are working remotely, Cuff said the Holyoke center represents a networking place where ideas can evolve.
“It’s not a place to just ‘click’. It’s a unique and special facility where incredible brain trust and sharing happens,” Cuff said. , share ideas and collaborate on science.”
John Goodhue, executive director of the data center, said the facility was originally built with room for expansion. He said a substantial portion of the $5 million investment is spent on adding power distribution, chilled water distribution for cooling, and equipment racks that can hold computers. Another significant portion of the investment will be directed towards the power panels and wiring needed to take electricity from the utility and match it to the computers.
The infrastructure is almost entirely powered by non-fossil energy sources, including approximately 67 megawatts of local hydroelectric and solar generation operated by Holyoke Gas and Electric. Goodhue said the incentive for universities in 2008 was to reduce their carbon footprint and that sparked interest in finding a suitable location where the energy was as green as possible.
“The universities learned that the city of Holyoke operated its own hydroelectric plant that was originally built to power the textile mills,” Goodhue said. “This dam generates more hydroelectricity than we need for a full data center. This gives us room for growth.”
Goodhue said the computer center is a separate non-profit entity funded by the five universities. More than ten years ago, they realized that research computing was becoming fundamental in all branches of research, from astrophysics to the humanities. Researchers are using computing power to study star formation, to improve medical imaging, to study ecocystem dynamics in New England coastal waters, and to model global risks of accelerating climate change, among other projects.
“They needed a way to systematically support the equipment that professors and increasingly central IT were acquiring,” Goodhue said. “Universities have invested in building the facility and are currently investing in its ongoing expansions.
Nino Mtchedlishvili writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program Gazette.
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