IU welcomes 1 of world's fastest supercomputers

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News,Science and Technology

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Wedged into a protective mound of earth, this building with its thick concrete walls is flood-proof, tornado-proof and very nearly people-proof.

Craig Stewart, executive director of Indiana University's Pervasive Technology Institute, peers in through the door and only exterior window. He has forgotten his ID card, and nobody whom he is with has access to the data center.

He has to be let into the next room, too - rejected by a biometric reader that decides his injured hand is not Craig Stewart's hand.

Watched by security cameras, Stewart walks in the dark past blinking green lights to show off what looks to the unscientific eye like a row of black gym lockers.

This is a supercomputer. A new one that Stewart says is likely among the 50 fastest supercomputers in the world and the fastest one in the country to be funded and owned by a university. One that he expects to crunch a quadrillion pieces of data per second and gross hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money for IU.

It is to your laptop what a jet airliner is to a circus unicycle.

The lights around it are kept dim as it glows red and emits a constant whirring buzz. This creates the drama and tension of an action movie scene about to explode. And yet, it looks a little unassuming. Even more so when the regular fluorescent lights flicker on for a minute.

But this recently installed supercomputer, known as Big Red II, is a $7.5-million machine that aims to open the world of big data to every IU researcher and every IU student.

It can analyze digital texts, simulate the creation of stars and sequence 5,000 genomes.

"We don't really know all that we're going to enable," Stewart, also associate dean for research technologies, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/YKlldT ).

Big Red II will expand the university's work in life sciences. It will dip into the humanities and support research in more than 150 disciplines.

"If you want more paintings," said Brad Wheeler, IU's chief information officer, "don't ration the canvas."

What Big Red II can deduce in a second would take a person with a calculator more than 25 trillion years.

Its hard drive can hold an amount of data that would fit on discs stacked more than a mile high.

That is necessary common infrastructure for research, Wheeler said, "just like tables and chairs for a classroom."

Like a regular computer, this custom-ordered, 1-petaFLOPS Cray supercomputer needs to run periodic updates. It needs to have its hard drive cleared up, and it automatically backs up data to another center in Indianapolis.

But unlike a regular computer, Big Red II uses more energy than the average home. It has its own water cooling system and is not supposed to ever freeze up or crash. Its virus and hacker protection comes in the form of a team devoted to constantly watching it. And it never turns off.

(In case of emergency, there is a big red shut-off button - "PUSH" - in a plastic box mounted near the door.)

Under warranty for three years, Big Red II is being warmed up and tuned up by specialists before its test drive in June. Already, at least 75 people have expressed interest in how this supercomputer works.

"We want as many different people to do as many different things that they've never done before," said Matt Link, director of research technology systems.

Supercomputers have been around for decades but continue to grow faster. They have played key roles in mapping the human genome and discovering the elementary particle Higgs boson.

There are faster supercomputers funded by universities outside of the country, according to Jack Dongarra, an editor of the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites. And there are faster computers at U.S. universities that were purchased with government and university funds.

But IU bought Big Red II using operational funding from research grants. One of the best perks of owning the supercomputer, university officials say, is that IU doesn't have to share it with anyone.

Big Red II is 25 times faster, 50 percent smaller and a smidge cheaper than its predecessor, the university said. The original Big Red plucks away in the shadows of the same room, waiting for its replacement to fully go online.

Researchers using the original Big Red generated more than $250 million in federal grants, according to IU.

A technological dinosaur at 7 years old, Big Red will be sold to the highest bidder, many of its parts likely to be melted down.

Big data, tech chief Wheeler says, will soon become gargantuan data - the next generation of research.

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Herald-Times.

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