UT announces $38 million supercomputing initiative

With gifts from Dallas benefactor, tech businesses, institute would use computers to simulate real-world events

By Sharon Jayson and Kirk Ladendorf
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, March 10, 2003

The University of Texas announced a $38 million science initiative Monday, designed to make UT-Austin a supercomputing powerhouse.

Dallas benefactor Peter O'Donnell Jr. has donated $15 million to create the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. UT-Austin is matching that gift, and a consortium of high-tech businesses is contributing $8 million.

The research center will use supercomputers to simulate complicated real-world events. A broad range of fields, including weather forecasting and aircraft design, already rely on such simulation, but advanced computer modeling is expected to have even greater impacts on new research into medicine, communications, security and transportation.

Scientific and engineering research is relying more and more on computer simulation and modeling, said analyst David Freund with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, H.H.

"Being able to build mathematical models gives you answers to scientific problems not just faster, but also better," Freund said

Frequently those problems are attacked by dividing them into parts among clusters, or grids, of many computers. UT's new research institute, Freund says, will try to formulate a discipline on how best to model difficult problems and attack them using computing grids.

UT officials declined to confirm the donor's identity, but O'Donnell, 78, has long been UT-Austin's most well-known anonymous donor. He did not return calls seeking comment. His previous gifts come to almost $95 million. Among them is the $31.2 million, six-story ACES Building, which sits on 186,000 square feet at 24th Street and Speedway. The building opened in 2000.

ACES — Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences — is an interdisciplinary research center for study in computational science and engineering. The new computer center will be housed in the ACES building.

The $8 million dollar contribution, largely in the form of in-kind gifts of equipment and software, comes from Dell Computer Corporation, Cray Incorporated, IBM, Force10 Networks, Microsoft, Nortel, Platform Computing, StorageTek Computing, Sun, TeraBurst, MirraCom Inc. and United Devices, among others.

The $15 million in matching contributions will cover the $4 million price tag to complete a floor of the ACES Building; $4 million to match private contributions for four endowed chairs; and $7 million in university operating funds over five years, said Jim Kunetka of the university's development office.

The new institute will begin with 25 or 30 researchers and grow to about 75, with some visiting scholars.

High-performance computing equipment capable of scientific visualization, massive data storage and high-speed networking will allow researchers to conduct complex mathematical calculations and simulations using large quantities of data. In addition, researchers will now have the technical capability to sort through trillions of pieces of information in order to find patterns.

"The right kind of collaborations will put Texas on the computational national map," said Juan Sanchez, UT's vice president for research.

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620