Four universities join research elite

Deep in the bowels of Queen’s University’s Dupuis Hall, Dr. Ken Edgecombe has a dream – he wants to fill his room with his favourite supercomputer.

Edgecombe got one step closer to that dream earlier this month when Queen’s University, along with Carleton University, The Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Ottawa introduced the High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL) to provide researchers in Ontario with the high performance computing resources needed to conduct research in a broad spectrum of disciplines, including everything from medicine to engineering.

The six-foot machines, which reside in a basement at Kingston, Ont.-based Queen’s, will facilitate a secure, high-performance computing environment for research teams.

Edgecombe, the executive director of HPCVL, said the new gear, supplied primarily by Markham, Ont.-based Sun Microsystems of Canada, is going to fast-track research for anyone using it.

“Basically, what we have here is a capable computing environment,” he said before the launch and ceremony at Queen’s. “We are trying to provide for eastern Ontarians, the four universities especially, the capability for the researchers to do research that they couldn’t do because they couldn’t get the funding or the resources to do it by themselves.”

While admitting it takes special circumstances for normally competitive universities to co-operate in this manner, the pooled resources were necessary to ensure adequate support from both the public and private sector, Edgecombe said.

“We have been able to put together one of the largest academic computing centres in the world,” he added.

Sun Microsystems’ Sun Fire servers, deployed through a cluster-grid and accessible through a Web-based portal, were selected to power the HPCVL.

Everett Anstey, president of Sun in Canada, said he believes innovation in the country is critical in order to maintain the current standard of living. However, he added some motives are just a little selfish.

“The education marketplace develops the marketplace in the country and one key component in this is, obviously, if you have your equipment in the educational institutions, people graduate and they are most likely thinking of your technology as they move forward,” he said after the ceremony. “There are really good reasons for us to be involved in this, selfish reasons if you like. If you talk to any other computer company, it’s the same approach.”

Supported by the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, which has allowed HPCVL to install the four Sun Fire 6800 servers, each with 24 CPUs and 24 GB of RAM along with 3.9TB of Sun StorEdge T3 disk storage, the universities were able to employ a total of 96 Sun UltraSPARC III 750MHz processors – giving HPCVL a theoretical peak performance 144 GFLOPS.

Other private sector supporters behind the project include IBM Canada and Entrust Technologies. The federal and Ontario provincial governments have also underwritten HPCVL with $17.5 million in grants.

While unable to tag an exact financial number on the donation, Anstey said it was in the “millions and millions of dollars.”

“Researchers are finding new ways of examining things and looking at things,” he said. “We couldn’t do some of these things before because we didn’t have the computer power.”

With this power, Edgecombe said, the facility will join the world’s research elite. “By next summer, we should have approximately 300 CPUs here and we hope to place within the top 100 of all the faculties in the world for research,” he said, adding that the facility will attract industry to invest in research and development within the system.

After the ceremony, a research symposium highlighted some of the work being undertaken as a result of the initiative. Dr. J

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