Grid may put Austin on map

Federal grant could pave way for major computing initiative here

By Stacey Higginbotham
Austin Business Journal Staff
August 4, 2003

The University of Texas is pursuing a multimillion-dollar grant that literally would put it on the map for high-performance computing.

If UT succeeds in obtaining the grant, the economic impact for UT would be millions of dollars in research grants. Also, several local businesses would benefit, such as hardware giant Dell Inc. and software startup United Devices Inc.

The grant also would put Austin on the leading edge of technology that experts say will give companies access to computing power once reserved for government agencies and a few large corporations.

UT's Texas Advanced Computing Center has applied to the National Science Foundation for one-third of a $10 million grant that would pay for connecting an Austin research lab to the TeraGrid. The university should learn in early August whether it receives the grant and how much it has received.

The TeraGrid is a nationwide computing effort that connects five computing centers to create a 20-teraflop distributed computer. A 1-terflop computer can perform 1 trillion operations per second.

Current TeraGrid members are the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, the Center for Advanced Computing Research at the California Institute of Technology, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and the San Diego Supercomputing Center. UT would be the first member in the South or Southwest.

UT is applying to connect its planned "Lonestar" cluster to the TeraGrid. as well as other large computing resources. Lonestar, a 3.67-teraflop clustered computer, would be the fastest computer in the state, says Jay Boisseau, director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The center started building the cluster this month and plans to unveil it in October.

Aside from research dollars to the university, connection to the TeraGrid provides an opportunity for several local companies to offer goods and services for UT's TeraGrid infrastructure.

Boisseau says companies such as Dell and IBM Corp. already have benefited from the construction of Lonestar and would benefit further from upgrades to the system in a few years.

Aside from simply maintaining the cluster on the TeraGrid, UT could obtain other grants that could affect more companies in Central Texas, Boisseau says.

"Everyone would want to win [the grant] to get the connectivity to the TeraGrid, but the nice thing is, if you win, you are positioned to compete for R&D dollars on top of those for the TeraGrid," Boisseau says.

"This could be a lot more than $3.3 million. This could be a $10 million- or $20 million-a-year program, so it's a much bigger deal than just connecting to the TeraGrid -- that's just opening the door for more research."

Smaller companies such as server provider Newisys Inc., which is being purchased by Sanmina-SCI Corp., and local grid software developer United Devices could tap into money from research grants for high-performance computing, Boisseau says.

Ed Hubbard, president and CEO of United Devices, says attention toward grid computing is rising as companies seek less expensive ways to gain access to computing power.

"The lines are blurring across the industry over what is a cluster and what is a grid," Hubbard says. "Most companies don't care. They just want to put it all together and make them work like one system.

"I think the idea of the TeraGrid will eventually work just like that."

One of United Devices' academic clients, Purdue University in Indiana, is one UT's competitors for the TeraGrid connection grant. Among the other rivals for the three grants are Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Ohio Super Computer Center.

Kevin Noreen, a product marketing strategist for high-performance clustering at Dell, says the hardware company began realizing the importance of high-performance computing about three years ago and introduced its first related products about a year and a half ago.

"What makes it exciting to a lot of folks is there are many people out there who could never afford a supercomputer before and can now do so on a very limited budget," Noreen says.

Dell's introductory offering for clustered computers is an eight-node system that costs about $60,000. Noreen says Dell has assembled a team of engineers in Austin to provide services and expertise connected with Dell's high-performance offerings.

High-performance computing "is not the largest category of our servers, but it is a proof point of what we feel the future will look like," Noreen says.

Plenty of research money supports Noreen's optimism.

Federal funding of supercomputing climbed from $421.9 million in fiscal 1992 to $906.7 million in fiscal 2001. Supercomputing research requests for federal agencies in fiscal 2003 total $846.5 million, up from $788.9 million in 2002, according to the U.S. House Science Committee.

Earlier this year, IBM's Austin operations received $53.3 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to create high-performance computing technology.

Over a five-year period, UT is spending $38 million from vendors, the university and an anonymous donor for computing research.

Mike Rosenfield, director of IBM's Austin Research Lab, says Austin is a natural place to build this type of infrastructure because engineers here are knowledgeable about hardware and software expertise. Those engineers, combined with UT researchers, could put Austin over the edge in taking advantage of high-performance computing, he says.

"Right now, many places can make the case that they are well-positioned to take advantage of [high-performance computing], but Austin is going to be a little bit better positioned because we have two of the companies that are making big efforts with [it] -- IBM and Dell," Boisseau says.

Email STACEY HIGGINBOTHAM at (shigginbotham@bizjournals.com).

© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.

 

 

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