At William & Mary, the Department of Information Technology works with students, faculty and staff in finding technology-based solutions to complex problems. Within the academic realm, few problems are more complex than those tackled in research computing.
Enter high performance computing
Among its ranks, W&M IT includes a team dedicated to providing computing power, technical skill and high levels of intellectual acumen to support the array of computing projects conducted by researchers within the campus community. This team, the High Performance Computing (HPC) team, maintains a network of computers with much more processing power than the typical personal computer. These computers are used by members of the W&M academic community to run robust research computing projects.
“The HPC facilities at W&M provide a healthy middle ground for calculations that are too demanding for a single desktop machine but are not too overwhelming that a large supercomputing facility is needed,” explained Eric Walter, the HPC manager, as well as a senior research scientist in the physics department.
The facilities include three main clusters of computers, named SciClone, Storm and Chesapeake, providing over 2600 computing cores. The SciClone cluster is the main staple of HPC computing on campus. It provides about 1200 computing cores and over 120 terabytes of storage. Storm and Chesapeake are recent additions to the fleet (2014) and have paved the way for an exponential increase in HPC utilization hours. To put this in perspective, more than 1,200,000 hours were used in May 2015 whereas about 28,000 were used in May 2014, just a year before.
Walter and his team work to maintain the servers used to run various calculations. Research computing projects often require HPC services due to the large memory and storage requirements for the cutting-edge calculations they perform. Moreover, the HPC facilities give university constituents the flexibility and convenience of conducting their research right here on campus.
“It allows users to develop and test HPC software and algorithms on a local cluster that is supported by W&M staff,” added Walter.
The role of research computing
The HPC facilities serve a wide variety of researchers around the W&M community. Research computing is especially important to departments such as physics, applied science and Virginia Institute of Marine Science physical sciences. However, HPC equipment and services are also employed by researchers in various academic departments, including economics, as well as the Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations.
“[The HPC team] has been extremely important to the success of my research program and the breadth and strength of mathematical/computational science at W&M,” noted Professor Gregory Smith, an associate professor of applied science, in an email.
Smith’s work in the applied sciences exposes him to appreciable collaboration with the HPC team and their facilities.
He also noted his excitement over the university’s dedication to his field, adding, “I am highly appreciative of the administration’s continued support of centralized high performance computing at the College.”
Dennis Manos, the vice provost for research and graduate/professional studies, expressed a similar sentiment.
“It is good to know that computational science continues to be of great importance to the university,” he said.
A look toward the future
W&M plans to continue to expand on its research computing capabilities, and Information Technology’s HPC will be an integral part of it. This point has been corroborated in the infrastructure of the university, as a new space dedicated to HPC is included in the third Integrated Science Center (ISC3) construction plans.
“It is our intention to keep a robust, resident modeling simulation, and high-cycle computational capability alive for the foreseeable future. [The HPC team members] are puzzling out the deep infrastructure needs on the final approach to designs of the interior of ISC3 … There is no question that our need for computational capability will not go away,” Manos said.
Tom Crockett, who retired as HPC manager in June 2015 after 15 years with W&M IT, expressed confidence in the future of research computing.
“I fully expect this new academic data center to serve the College well for decades to come,” he said.
Crockett holds a unique perspective that sheds light upon research computing’s gradual development over the years. According to Crockett, steady cultivation has created a full-bodied research computing substructure.
“It has been gratifying to see the W&M HPC activity grow from a modest and sometimes rocky start to its present robust state,” he said.