Science & Engineering

Rice U Gets IBM Supercomputer for Biomed Research

Rice University is the recipient of a major research award from IBM that includes a supercomputer to do advanced biomedical research. Rice scientists will use the supercomputer, which is still being ramped up, in collaboration with researchers from Texas Medical Center to study cancer, AIDS, and other complex diseases.

The supercomputer is the centerpiece of a $7.6 million IBM Shared University Research award, the largest for high performance computing infrastructure in Rice's history. The system, dubbed "BlueBioU," runs on IBM's new Power7 microprocessor, launched in February 2010, and comes with software, services, and life sciences expertise from IBM. In a statement, the company said the system would be particularly useful for genomic sequencing, protein folding, drug modeling, and simulations of molecular-level interactions in tissues; its analytics capabilities would be well-suited for mining genomic and medical databases for patterns and connections leading to new treatment options.

Capable of 18.8 teraflops--or 18.8 trillion floating point calculations per second--the new computing platform is as powerful as the combined total of Rice's existing supercomputers. Currently, it has 576 cores capable of running 2,304 tasks simultaneously. The system contains 18 IBM Power 750 computing cluster nodes, which are based on the Power7 chip.

"Our vision is to facilitate collaboration among researchers and among institutions by providing a world-class computing resource that's well-suited to a range of bioscience applications," said Kamran Khan, Rice's vice provost for IT and one of the co-leaders of the project.

"It's exciting to have the world's first Power7 clusters here at Rice. The productivity and performance benefits of the Power7 platform are well aligned with Rice's future directions for research computing, as well as our ultimate goal of working with the medical center to enhance treatment options and find new cures for patients," said co-leader Vivek Sarkar, a professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering.

One collaborator--Baylor College of Medicine--is planning to explore genomic change in cancer through the application of genome analysis technologies, including large-scale genome sequencing.

"We are unlocking the mysteries of human cancer by analyzing the genomes of 50 patients with ovarian cancer to discover the mutation profile underlying their disease," said Kim Worley, associate professor of molecular and human genetics at the college. "If successful, we will analyze 1,000 patients with different cancers over the next year. This project will have a huge impact on our understanding of the biology of cancer and may identify potential future treatment avenues."

The new supercomputer, housed at Rice's data center, is connected to the Rice campus and to Texas Medical Center partners via a new $22 million network with 10-gigabit Ethernet on all nodes. In addition, Rice has a new high-availability storage infrastructure that provides multiple terabytes of data storage--398 GB per node--in the data center. BlueBioU is running Red Hat Enterprise Linux version 5.4.

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