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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 collaboration.

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 simulation.

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 cluster."

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.

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."


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