Cloud Computing | Feature
Carolina Cloud Cover: Clemson's Collaborative Computing Cluster
Clemson University is using an innovative matching program—and comprehensive IT support--to create a powerful computing cluster to serve institutions across South Carolina.
While many institutions are just beginning to weigh the
possibilities of cloud computing, Clemson University has
forged ahead with an ambitious cloud initiative intended to serve institutions
and companies across South Carolina. Called the South Carolina
Cloud, this virtual environment is designed for educational, corporate, and
IT specialists to share computing services and resources. Hosted at Clemson's
information technology center, the SC Cloud is helping to promote technological
research in the areas of computing and communication infrastructure, data
storage and visualization, education and workforce training, and virtual
The project had its inception back in 2006, not long after
CIO Jim Bottum joined Clemson. The first phase was solely a Clemson initiative,
and involved building what is known as the Palmetto Cluster using a campus
cloud approach. As at most universities, departments were littered with
faculty-purchased equipment that wasn't being used to its full potential--or
stood idle for much of the time. Faculty were approached with a proposal to
move their systems into the data center to be added to the Palmetto Cluster. In
exchange, faculty would have access to far greater computational power than
they'd have on their own, as well as system administration and IT support.
Under the plan, participating faculty would use their own
research grant money to purchase or lease any number of nodes within the
cluster to which they would then have priority access. Any computational needs
above the reserved amount would be available on a first-come, first-served
basis. And any unused cycles would be available to other faculty or students in
need of high-performance computing (HPC).
In addition, the university dangled a tempting carrot in
front of the faculty: For every dollar that faculty spent on computing power,
the university would match it. From the university's perspective, it could get
twice the computing bang for the buck. And the strategy exceeded all
expectations. With its launch, the Palmetto Cluster catapulted Clemson to #62
in the world’s Top 500 Computing Sites (it
currently resides at #96).
Indeed, the cluster proved to be so successful that the
university opted to take the concept beyond Clemson's own campus to several
educational, commercial, and governmental partners. "It works for
everybody, and that same strategy is what we've talked to other campuses
about," said Jill Gemmill, executive director of Clemson
University CyberInstitute and cyberinfrastructure technology integration.
Francis Marion University,
in Florence, SC, is one of these partners. Jeannette Myers, associate professor
of astronomy at FMU, requires high-performance computing to create simulations
of galaxy collisions. "Computer resources have always been a big issue for
me," explained Myers. In fact, Myers was tapping into the Palmetto Cluster
even before Clemson made its decision to open it up to partners. She had
attended Clemson as a grad student, so she asked a colleague there to run some
simulations on the newly created cluster. The cluster handled the computations
easily, but the network at FMU couldn't support the data transfer, forcing
Myers to drive three hours to swap out her 1TB hard drive every time she ran a
Not surprisingly, when Jim Bottum hosted a forum for smaller
South Carolina institutions to see if they would be interested in sharing
computing resources, Myers was all over it. "I was in the audience, and I
let him know that I was already using their computers," recalled Myers.
She now has direct access to the SC Cloud: FMU leases
several nodes as a jointly funded venture of its Department of Physics and
Astronomy and School of Business. "The Palmetto Cluster has greatly
improved my own computations," Myers noted, and the recent expansion of
the fiber optic network will allow for increased data transfer rates.
Another small institution that has partnered with Clemson is
Claflin University (SC), where Nicholas
Panasik, associate professor of biology and chemistry, is using the SC Cloud
for his research on directed evolution in biofuels. "One of the major
benefits is that they are giving us access to a supercomputing cluster and
increasing the amount of computational research we can do," he explained.
"We can push forward by leaps and bounds as opposed to inches."
Claflin has received grant awards to increase its bandwidth
and allow it to purchase time on the cluster, adding to the overall value of
the SC Cloud. "We as institutions have been able to collaborate to bring
in federal and other external funding to help improve the infrastructure,"
said Clemson's Gemmill.
But collaboration with other universities isn't confined to
shared financial and computing resources. Just as importantly, Clemson is
sharing its expertise.
Claflin's Panasik, for example, was puzzled by the lack of
participation among some researchers. "Why weren't there more researchers
using the cloud for their computing?" he wondered. "It turns out
there were faculty who had research that they wanted to do, but technical
roadblocks kept them from doing it. There was just that little gap."
Clemson's support team helped Panasik remove those
roadblocks. "They have a lot of personnel on the frontline to help those professors
or even students get onto the cluster more easily," said Panasik. "We
may know how to do the research but not the ins and outs of the cluster
technology." He suggested that Clemson's commitment to user support is
what has made the project so successful: "They have an army of personnel
who are troubleshooting, tailoring how your project works best on the
Jennifer Cash, associate professor of physics at South Carolina State University, is looking for
just such guidance as she begins her partnership with Clemson. SCSU is a
smaller university, primarily a teaching institution. And yet there is a
considerable amount of research happening in science and technology.
"We have a lot of faculty who are enthusiastic and want
to take their research farther, but don't have the computational
resources," explained Cash. The Clemson team is teaching her about what
she can do to further her own research, and she in turn is taking that
information back to her colleagues at SCSU. Cash is excited about the potential
for expanding her research capabilities. "I’ve got ideas of what I want to
do, but it's not working for me, so I'm hoping they can come up with ideas to
make it work."
Certainly, Clemson sees that as part of its role in the
partnership. "We have people with the computational expertise who are
willing to work with a researcher to get their problems solved," said
Gemmill believes the success of the SC Cloud can be
attributed to the combination of access to resources, access to expertise, and
partnering. Each institution that joins the cluster brings a different set of
strengths. And Clemson's interest in the investment is unwavering. "Our
model works for two reasons," she stated. “We are matching the equipment,
and we have the technical people to man it."