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August 30, 2000

Building A Supercomputer

Calvin College will soon have its very first supercomputer. Computer science professor Joel Adams (left) has earned a $163,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build a supercomputer and study its performance. He hopes to get the check from NSF on or about September 1 and begin buying the supercomputer "parts" soon thereafter. Plans are to assemble the supercomputer this fall and tune it next spring in order to have it ready for summer 2001 research work.

Just building the supercomputer promises to be a resume booster for Calvin College computer science students (there are about 100 computer science majors at Calvin). Adams and professor David Laverell will take the lead on the project, but will depend heavily on students in Calvin's "Computer Networks" course as well as students from the Calvin Linux Users Group.

Says Adams: "Building (the supercomputer) will involve a wide variety of students in a very practical, yet fairly rare, activity. This will be a fun and significant experience for our students."

Calvin's supercomputer will actually be a cluster (known as a "Beowulf cluster"), consisting of 16 high-end PCs, two higher-end workstations to control them, a fiber-optic network to allow the PCs to communicate with each other and software that enables the cluster to act together as a single supercomputer. When it's assembled the Calvin supercomputer will have over 100 times the power of the Cray-1, one of the world's first supercomputers from the mid-1970s.

"Needing to solve a computer-intensive problem is a little like needing to lift a 100 pound stone slab," says Adams. "One way to do it is to find an unusually strong person who can lift the slab. This is the equivalent of using a traditional supercomputer to solve the problem. Or you can find four normal people who can each lift 25 pounds and get tem to lift at the same time. This is the equivalent of using a cluster of PCs that in combination provides the power of a supercomputer. This technique, which we will use, was pioneered at NASA in the mid-1990s."

To study its performance, the supercomputer's configuration will be varied over three years, so that the performance of different configurations on different kinds of problems can be compared. Anyone (including students) with big computational problems will be welcome to use it. A half dozen Calvin faculty already have expressed an interest in using the supercomputer, including professors from computer science, chemistry, engineering and physics. One chemistry professor does molecular modeling that currently takes some 30 days to process. The new supercomputer should do the job in two days.

The supercomputer promises to be a community resource as well. Adams says other local colleges, community groups, medical research institutes and more also will be able to use the supercomputer as it is available. This NSF grant to Calvin to build a supercomputer is rare since most such grants go to Ph.D. institutions. However, Calvin does rank in the top three percent of all four-year, private colleges for number of graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D.

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Contact Phil de Haan.