Compaq server offers guide to the galaxies

A physics and astronomy professor at McMaster University is using a recently-installed supercomputer to discover how galaxies formed years millions of years after the Big Bang.

Hugh Couchman, who has specialized in this research since 1989, says the addition of a Compaq AlphaServer SC system will not only speed the rate at which he can conduct his work, but create “a high-performance computing culture” around Ontario’s leading universities.

Couchman uses the computer to mathematically simulate small density fluctuations between particles of gas. These extremely computing-intensive projects try to recreate with numbers what happened after the Big Bang when gases cooled and electrons combined with protons to become neutral hydrogen or helium.

“My interest has moved on to try and understand the formation of individual galaxies themselves,” he said. “They really are the fundamental building block out there, and yet particular in disc galaxies — like our own galaxy, a nice spiral pattern in a sort of disc — we don’t really understand very well how they formed. And clearly to understand that properly, you have to do a numerical simulation. It’s not the kind of thing you can explain on the back of an envelope.”

Until the AlphaServer was installed in March, Couchman was forced to book time on supercomputers at institutions in Edinburgh and Munich. Now, members of an international astronomy professional association called Virgo will be visiting McMaster to take advantage of the school’s expanded resources. The supercomputers were financed through Sharc-net, a project funded by Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT). The University of Guelph and the University of Western Ontario are also installing AlphaServers as part of the project.

Ira Weiss, business manager for high-performance servers at Compaq Canada in Richmond Hill, Ont., said five other institutions in Canada have implemented the AlphaServer apart from the Sharc-Net schools. Most of the other commercial implementations have been in the atomic energy management, defence and environment fields, he added.

“They have a good handle on what all the vendors have to offer from a product perspective,” he said. “What they look for in assistance is creating a customization that meets their needs based on the available funding they have. In many cases, it’s consultative and collaborative.”

Though many of his overseas colleagues have helped Couchman with his work, he said there are considerable disadvantages to working remotely.

“Data transfer is a really big problem,” he said, noting that these simulations can generate tens or hundreds of gigabytes of data. “Just to download 2GB from Toronto to Hamilton took over an hour,” he said. “If you’re talking about hundreds of gigabytes, basically you have to put it on tape and drive.”

The other problem with having a computer based overseas is that it’s much harder to experiment, Couchman said. “You wait for your allocation come up and do the simulation you agreed to do, but sometimes it’s not really how science works,” he said. “Typically you run something and you think, ‘Damn, I wish I would have changed that parameter a little bit. With local hardware, it’s much easier to do that.”

Training graduate students using a remote computer is also a challenge, Couchman added. “It really is a crucial part of many areas of science.”

Compaq recently announced it would discontinue the Alpha platform through an agreement with Intel that would see the hardware manufacturer adopt the chipmaker’s Itanium chip on its server line. But Weiss said customers shouldn’t fear the transition.

“It’s not like we were planning on providing board upgrades to these systems,” he said. “Because it’s a platform shift on the chip, there is going to be differences on how the chip handles the operating system code and the customer code.”

To deal with that shift, Compaq has started a port to Intanium with one set of code for Open VMS whether it’s Intanium or Alpha and one set of code for Tru64 Unix. “Customers that remain current on the platform . . . their migration should be relatively painless because they’re developing their code on the same development tools.”

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