Super power: state a tech leader

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Published: October 18,2004

When it comes to supercomputers, Mississippi has something to brag about. In recent years the state has ranked as high as third in the nation in supercomputing capacity. It normally ranks between three and five, and is currently seventh in the nation and first in the Southeast.

“There are some big systems that opened in other states in recent years that dropped us down a little bit,” said Roger Smith, senior systems administrator for the Engineering Research Center at Mississippi State University (MSU). “But another big system is being built at the Naval Oceanographic Center at Stennis Space Center. Hopefully, that will move us back up.”

A new IBM system currently being installed at the Major Shared Resources Center at the Stennis Naval Oceanographic Center will be the most powerful U.S. military computer in the world.

Mississippi is well known in high-performance computing circles — for good reason. MSU’s newest supercomputer is 12th among American universities in high-performance computing power, according to the latest “Top 500 Supercomputing sites” list. Only Louisiana State University, at ninth, has a more powerful system in the Southeast. MSU’s IBM system dubbed “Maverick” also is identified as the 158th most powerful unit in the world.

And the Mississippi Center for Supercomputing Research (MCSR), which is based in Oxford at the University of Mississippi and serves more than 800 researchers at eight Mississippi universities, has also undergone a recent upgrade. MCSR has acquired a 64-processor SGI Altix system from Silicon Graphics that significantly “raises the bar” for computing resources available for the university researchers and two collaborating Department of Defense facilities. MCSR acquired the new Altix system to tackle large-scale calculations, such as those common to computational chemistry and molecular modeling applications

“I think some of these capabilities are what attract companies like Nissan and American Eurocopter to Mississippi, and we hope we can use it as a springboard to bring in other companies,” Smith said. “Mississippi does have a pretty good history of defense businesses in our state, and we hope we can spread that into some other fields.”

Smith said Maverick represents the world’s largest diskless InfiniBand supercomputer, an IBM clustered system that uses InfiniBand technology to speed communications between 192 servers and 384 processors. The advanced connectivity technology is provided by Bedford, Mass.-based Voltaire Inc.

“All of these are connected together with a really high-speed network called InfiniBand,” said Smith. “The fact that Voltaire was willing to work with us in doing something as exotic as this was one of the reasons we chose them. We are really pushing the envelope in regard to what other institutions are doing. While a normal desktop computer network processes 100 million bits or 100 megabits per second, the InifiBand network processes 10 billion bits or 10 gigabits per second. The Maverick can perform 1,389 billion calculations per second compared to 366 billion calculations per second by the ERC’s previous system.”

None of the Maverick systems have any hard drives in them. They’re all diskless. There’s only one hard drive in the entire network. Smith said that saves a lot of money in the purchase of hard drives.

MCSR director David Roach said their recent upgrades mean that researchers are able to run programs they couldn’t run before that required extensive memory and processor resources.

“Users are able to get more results faster,” Roach said. “They are able to do work they couldn’t do before because of increased resources. We are a general purpose high computing resource that serves the entire IHL (Institutions for Higher Learning) community in Mississippi. So we have to meet a varied set of needs. Most of the usage comes from the four research universities and the University Medical Center. The MCSR currently supports more than $40 million in IHL research contracts and grants.”

Roach said when it comes to supercomputers, the state shines. He attributes that largely to being home to major Department of Defense supercomputing centers at Stennis Space Center and at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg.

“We’re certainly a major player in high performance computing,” Roach said. “We do as a state have a really large set of configurations for high performance computers. We are home to two major Department of Defense (DoD) supercomputer shared resources centers. Those two centers are major international level resources for the DoD.”

Roach explains that instead of one large computer, now in many cases a large number of smaller computers are linked together by high-speed connectivity to create supercomputing capacity. The Altix system purchased recently by MCSR employs commodity Intel Itanium2 processors linked together by SGI’s proprietary CC-NUMA architecture that provides a shared memory processing environment under the Linux operating system. The MCSR also operates SGI Original and Cray supercomputers in addition to a large Intel P4 cluster.

Steve Adamec, director of the Naval Oceanographic Office’s NAVOCEANO Major Shared Resource Center (MSRC), said its new system will represent one of the largest scientific computing facilities in the world today.

“While we are housed at a Navy facility, we actually serve the Army, Navy, Air Force and other agencies within the Department of Defense,” Adamec said. “Our primary mission is to provide one of the world’s best supercomputer environments to serve research and development in the Army, Navy, Air Force and other agencies in the DoD. The total number of people we serve numbers 4,000 to 5,000. It is a large community of folks who need ultra capable supercomputing abilities.

“Additionally, this center has a very special mission for the Navy. Specifically, we provide supercomputing and large-scale data management and storage capability to support Navy operations worldwide.”

Adamec agrees that the MSRC combined with upgrades at the corps center in Vicksburg could make Mississippi move up when compared to other states in supercomputing power.

“It would not surprise me if Mississippi ranks within the top five in the nation,” Ademec said. “The Top 500 project tracks the world’s most powerful computers. Last year was the 10th anniversary of the list. For the first 10 years, the Naval Oceanographic Office was one of 10 most powerful centers in the world.”

There are also benefits outside of the governmental sector. Ademec said having this kind of resource and activity at multiple places in Mississippi tends to attract business.

“We have hundreds of people employed across the state who work to support these supercomputer centers,” he said. “The other important point from business perspective is we find it is easier to attract and retain bright young minds looking for jobs because they have such huge technical computing capabilities here. From a recruitment and retention standpoint, we find that is helpful. When you look at young scientists, engineers or IT specialists, all of them want to work on the biggest and best facilities for their scientific field of study. Having these supercomputing facilities makes it easier to attract and retain these folks. If we didn’t have these, they might not be as inclined to live here.”

Ademec said operational availability and resilience of the new systems at NAVOCENAO will be critical elements to support the DoD.

“In combination with the tremendous increase in computational power, we now have an unparalleled ability to quickly bring one of the world’s premiere high-performance computing (HPC) environments to bear on some of the nation’s most pressing computational needs, with extremely high confidence that critical systems and services will be available at all times,” Ademec said.

A press release from IBM says the new system will, when deployed, be not only the fastest supercomputer in the U.S. military, but also one of the fastest supercomputing clusters in the world. IBM said the new systems will triple the effective computing power of the Center, providing dramatically improved computational support for DoD research and development and enhancement of global scale modeling and simulation capabilities for the U.S. Navy in support of worldwide Navy and DoD operations.

“The new IBM systems at NAVOCEANO will enable DoD scientists and engineers to solve complex problems previously impossible with smaller systems,” said Cray Henry, director of the DoD HPC Modernization Program. “We are particularly pleased to acquire a nearly 3,000 processor system — the largest single system that we have ever fielded. The tremendous size of this system will allow us to explore, as never before, the limits of scalability for our key applications and our ability to harness the massive power of ultra-scale HPC systems.”

Henry said the new supercomputers will substantially enhance the Navy’s ability to perform global scale modeling and simulation to carry out its diverse mission, maximizing support to the fleet worldwide and to the nation. The largest of the new systems is expected to run at a peak speed of 20 trillion mathematical operations per second, and will do so in the NAVOCEANO environment where operational resilience and high availability are of paramount importance.

Another top high-performance computing center in Mississippi, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), in Vicksburg, presently has seven supercomputers with an aggregate computing capability that routinely places it in the top 20 centers worldwide. These resources are accessible to DoD engineers and scientists around the world and help provide the advantage to the U.S. military on the battlefield.

“With these HPC resources, DoD engineers and scientists can solve problems that cannot be solved in any other way, and they solve them faster or more accurately than ever before,” said John E. West, director of the HPC Center at Vicksburg. “The nation’s defense requirements place larger and larger demands on DoD researchers to do more with less, and to do it faster than ever before. The hardware provided at ERDC is a uniquely powerful asset to the nation.”

West agrees that the supercomputing assets of Mississippi are a bonus in retaining the intellectual capital of Mississippi.

“Another valuable asset are the dozens of computational, visualization and technical specialists working at the ERDC HPC Center, who enable researchers to use these powerful resources effectively,” West said. “This, in turn, results in job opportunities for the best and brightest students in Mississippi and elsewhere.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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