Ontario university gets a supercomputer

The University of Western Ontario (UWO) at London and Compaq Canada Inc. have teamed up to establish a $1.6 million supercomputer centre for computational research – the first of its kind in Canada.

Officially unveiled on March 23, the high-performance Compaq Alpha technology-based server and workstation systems will see the two entities partner over the next five years. UWO president Dr. Paul Davenport described the Compaq-Western Centre for Computational Research as a fantastic new facility which will put his institution at the cutting edge.

“This is a wonderful example of what a university and a corporate partnership can develop,” Davenport said. “This supercomputer places Western among the four or five institutions in North America [that offer this compute power]…we can now attract and retain the high quality of faculty and students to this university…and fight the brain-drain issue.”

The Centre harnesses the power of 70 Compaq Alpha processors installed in Compaq AlphaServer ES40 and AlphaStation systems running in a pure Linux operating system. The installation also employs Beowulf clustering. As an arm of UWO’s Faculty of Science, the centre offers staff and students the largest academic installation of Alpha processors in the country.

“Skills and the brain-drain are realities that we as a country need to focus on,” remarked Peter Ciceri, president and managing director of Compaq Canada. “The university now has the capability to support a competitive research environment on a North American scale.”

The Compaq-Western supercomputer includes tightly-coupled systems such as the AlphaServer SC running Compaq Tru64 Unix as well as the Beowulf clusters built from combinations of Alpha or Intel processors using the Linux operating system. The goal of Beowulf clustering is to create a parallel-processing supercomputer environment at a much reduced cost when compared to traditional supercomputers – a whopping $15 million difference.

“Several other Beowulf clusters are emerging on campus,” said Dr. Peter Poole, a professor in UWO’s department of applied mathematics for the faculty of science, and a key figure in the creation of the Compaq-Western union. “This is a cost-effective alternative to a traditional supercomputer. Bill Gates once said the Internet had the effect of eradicating the effect of distance…well, this supercomputer eradicates the effects of time. It’s a time machine.”

Poole explained the supercomputer allows researchers to see results of their work within days or maybe a week, rather than years.

Beowulf clusters commodity hardware components to form a parallel virtual supercomputer. It is a system that usually consists of one system-management node and one or more compute nodes connected via Ethernet or other network or system area network interconnect.

Poole said Beowulf is ideal for tackling very complex problems that can be divided and run simultaneously in separate computers.

Moreover, UWO’s senior director of IT services, Dr. Michael Bauer, is spearheading a proposal to the Canadian Foundation of Innovation (CFI) seeking funding that would link five prominent southern Ontario universities – McMaster (Hamilton), Guelph, Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier (Kitchener) and UWO – via Beowulf technology. Nortel Networks, Bell Canada, and Compaq all figure prominently in the proposal.

“If you have 48 processors, what would happen if you scaled that to 200 or 400 processors?” Bauer asked. “There are other researchers (at different universities) that are looking at the Beowulf cluster, so why not network them together. We’d have a dedicated network on campus and between other campuses.”