SHARCNet members prepare for supercomputing boost

Canadian researchers say a plan to inject $50 million into a common supercomputing facility could accelerate everything from the development of more fuel-efficient cars to our understanding of bacteria infection.

The Ontario government said it will match the $19.3-million contribution of the

Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to expand the Shared Hierarchical Reserach Computing Network (SHARCNet), almost doubling the number of participating post-secondary institutions. Schools such as the University of Windsor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Fanshawe College and Sheridan College are all SHARCNet partners, today, but additional funding will allow York University, Brock University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology to reach a total of 11 academic partners. SHARCNet also raised an additional $10 million through institutional and private sector partners.

Researchers involved in SHARCNet use its high-performance computing capabilities for a range of activities, including simulations, sequencing and advanced calculations. Some of its success, like the verification of the largest known prime number, might be of greater interest to academics, but other projects have more recognizably commercial potential.

At the University of Western Ontario, for example, department of chemistry researcher Tom Woo is working on a research project for General Motors Canada in which he is simulating materials used to protect engine surfaces.

“”What they’re interested in is developing materials to protect aluminum surfaces, which they hope to move to in the future from steel or iron,”” he said. “”Apparently to make the car more fuel-efficient, the easiest way is to make it lighter. The engine block is the single heaviest component of the car.””

A collaboration with Defence R&D Canada, meanwhile, is seeking to find new materials to store energy. One route to energy storage is by high compression, Woo said. “”What you want is to make material that stores energy that you can somehow release in a controlled manner,”” he said. “”We’re just looking at plain old nitrogen gas, but if you can break those bonds and if it’s meta-stable, when the bonds reform they’ll release lots of energy.””

SHARCNet has been an invaluable tool so far, Woo added, and he said the $50 million for infrastructure can only further his efforts.

“”(Defence R&D Canada) can’t just go buy a PC and do these simulations. They really need access to high-performance computing,”” he said. “”I really think that the amount that we got is really going to push it up.””

Ilias Kotsireas, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said he was excited about the possibility of adding 1,000 nodes and 1,000 more CPUs to SHARCNet. Kotsireas is using SHARCNet to run a set of scripts that allow him to build what are called Hadamard Matrices — rectangular arrays of numbers — which are used in coding theory, cryptography and other areas in mathematics.

The purpose of running these computational algebra formulae is to gain better insights into the structure of mathematical problems, he said. High-performance computing has considerably advanced this work.

“”This was something unimaginable a few years ago,”” he said. “”Who would think you could run 100 programs simultaneously and in a couple of days get the results and then process them?””

For Hermann Eberl, the benefits of SHARCNet go beyond the use of the infrastructure, though the University of Guelph professor has often turned to it in his work. Eberl is running simulations to find out why bacteria behaves the way it does and how they respond in various environments in order to control them. Eberl also holds one of the SHARCNet research chairs, which he said has given him the freedom to focus on the work he wants to do.

“”There’s sort of a regional community being established through people who use the SHARCNet machines,”” he said. “”This brings people together to network, to exchange ideas or talk about experiences.””

Once fully installed, SHARCNet will also be used by a number of national research initiatives, including the Centre for Advanced Studies in Finance, the Western Ontario Bioinformatics Initiative and Ontario Research Centre for Computer Algebra.

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