Rocky Mountain HPC center brings supercomputing to the people

Nonprofit aims to expand access to supercomputing power


In the small city of Butte, Mont., a new high-performance computing center has been built with a lofty goal: to give the power of supercomputing to anyone who needs it.

The Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Centers, a private nonprofit created by the Montana state government and with support from IBM, just opened this year but already has dozens of customers.

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The initial buildout "is basically creating a democratization of high-performance computing, which historically has been the purview of a very few," Alex Philp, chairman and CEO of RMSC, said during an interview with Network World at the SC09 supercomputing conference in Portland, Ore.

RMSC's Web site went live less than two months ago. The organization's customers include university professors performing astrophysics and climate modeling; the Amgen biotech company; a company performing massive pattern recognition for the U.S. Navy; financial companies analyzing real-time stock feeds; and an Indian reservation looking at terrestrial carbon sequestration in tribal land.

RMSC aims to make enough money to sustain its growth, but is not always charging customers. The organization is mainly subsidized by taxpayers.

"Right now we're just giving away time," Philp said. "We have people coming out of the woodwork who are stuck in their particular field, their particular problem."

IBM has provided funding and outfitted the facility with a cluster based on its System x and System p servers. "It's a new and novel model," said Earl Dodd, an IBM Deep Computing executive who also serves as a director of RMSC. "IBM believes it is the first of its kind."

According to Philp, the RMSC grew out of a challenge issued by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "Three years ago, the governor of Montana laid out a vision. He said ‘I'm tired of being the center of the supercomputing desert,'" Philp said. "He laid out a challenge: ‘I want to grow our capacity. I want to use this as a plank in revolutionizing high tech, high paying jobs in Montana.' He thinks very big. So we wrote a business plan, the idea being that we were going to revolutionize how high-performance computing could be done on-demand as a distributed system."

RMSC won't be breaking any speed records, with total performance of just 3.8 teraflops. "Everyone says, ‘oh, it doesn't even make the Top 500 list [of the world's fastest supercomputers],'" Dodd says. "But we probably do as much work in 3.8 teraflops … as a system four times our size."

RMSC plans to grow to about 20 to 50 teraflops, but the number isn't a true limit because for big workloads the Rocky Mountain center can seamlessly spill over to partner sites.

"If somebody wants a 100-teraflop job, it's no problem," Dodd says. "We just redirect that job to IBM Computing On Demand. If it's a ten-teraflop job, let's redirect to the Idaho National Laboratory."

In addition to bringing supercomputing resources to people who need it, and spurring economic development in Montana, the RMSC also aims to build a testbed where vendors can bring in innovative technologies that might enhance supercomputing capabilities. One of RMSC's partners is NextIO, which makes an I/O virtualization product that has helped RMSC reduce space and energy needs.

"The vision is we buy and pay as we go, expand as needed, and bring in partners like NextIO that want to test and evaluate how their capability enhances supercomputing," Philp says.

While the computing services offered by RMSC are similar to the cloud platforms popping up all over the IT industry, RMSC gives customers the tools to tackle far more complex scientific problems than can be solved in a typical cloud service.

"What we say is the cloud is neat but there are a lot of people who need to do more than grab e-mail or get a Word document and all that," Philp says. "If you want to go to Amazon and have your e-mail hosted, fine. If you want to do a hard problem, come talk to us."

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