New Green Supercomputer Powers Up at Purdue

A new supercomputer installed at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN is being compared to a "fleet of thousands of bike messengers." Individually they don't carry much freight, but they use less energy and are more effective in some situations. At least, that's the hope. Gerry McCartney, vice president for IT and CIO at Purdue, said the supercomputer, a SiCortex 5832, uses one-fortieth the power of traditional supercomputers.

"The net energy savings is significant. We expect to see a reduction of 75 percent to 80 percent of the costs of the energy and the associated costs of the cooling in using this machine," McCartney said. "But this is an experimental machine in the sense that we are just learning how to use it to make real scientific discoveries."

SiCortex, based in Boston, is a new computing company that produces systems designed specifically for high performance computing used in research supercomputers. Argonne National Laboratory also has installed one of the energy efficient machines.

"Energy use has become one of the biggest challenges in conducting scientific research," McCartney said. "It's not just the power the computer itself uses, which can be significant, but also the air conditioning. Supercomputers are the prima donnas of the computing world. They're like a star insisting on a special dressing room. These machines require special facilities called data centers where we pump in massive amounts of extra air conditioning or they literally self-destruct."

A recent research paper from the United States Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said that for a climate model to look at what is happening down to scales of one kilometer would require a supercomputer costing a billion dollars and using 200 megawatts of power to operate. That's the same amount of electricity used by a city with a population of 100,000.

"The energy issue is something we are going to have to solve in order to make significant scientific advances," McCartney said.

The SiCortex 5832 is about the size of two refrigerators and sports DeLorean-style gull-wing doors.

Its processors draw 600 milliwatts of power each, or about the same power requirements as a cell phone or small flashlight. By comparison, a standard supercomputer contains thousands of processors that require about 25 watts (25,000 milliwatts) of energy each.

The SiCortex computer uses a non-traditional architecture to achieve the power savings and eliminates parts of the processor that aren't needed for supercomputers that would otherwise expend energy. Also, because of the technology used, the school said it's cheaper to buy than comparable supercomputers.

"With these advantages one might ask, 'Why don't you replace all of your supercomputers with this machine?'" McCartney says. "The reason is that this type of computer architecture works better for some kinds of science than others, and part of why we're acquiring the SiCortex is so we can learn how to do more science with this type of computer."

Research scientists in Purdue's Office of IT will explore what kind of computational tasks can work on the new class of machines and possibly even rewrite software so they can run common science applications.

Rudolf Eigenmann, professor of electrical and computer engineering and interim director of Purdue's Computing Research Institute, said faculty researchers are already using the new machine.

"There are science applications that are already well adapted to this type of computing, such as research in chemistry and genetics, and even nano-electronics," Eigenmann said. "We've put this computer to use from the first day, but we will also be looking for more areas in which we can use lower-power computing."

"At Purdue we have a team of talented research scientists in our central computing division who focus on improving scientific computing, so it makes sense for us to be among the first to look at this new technology to see how it can be used for discovery," McCartney said.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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