Four universities to share hardware grant

Canadian scientists will be able to keep better track of everything from frogs to protein cells through a hardware grant program that will bring the IA-64 supercomputing into four Canadian universities.

Hewlett-Packard Canada and Intel of Canada this week said the universities of Guelph, Waterloo, Alberta and McGill University in Montreal were among the 40 post-secondary schools around the world who will receive HP Workstation i2000s and HP Server rx4610 products. The grant program is a US$2.5 million joint effort by the two partners, who co-created IA-64.

Deborah Stacey, Guelph’s assistant vice-president of infrastructure research programs and an associate professor of computing and information science, said the workstations may provide a way of expanding the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network, or SHARC-Net. SHARC-Net is a $42 million project trying to connect participating computer clusters at a variety of Canadian universities with ultra high speed fiber-optic networking hardware. The University of Guelph has been running Compaq AlphaServers to handle its supercomputing work, but earlier this year Compaq said it would discontinue the line after selling off part of the technology to Intel.

“We know that there’s a possibility for expansion of SHARC-Net, and the IA-64 architecture may be something we have to consider,” she said, adding that the school could get a head start on IA-64 training just by having the hardware on hand to perform benchmark tests on some of its programs.

In the meantime, the HP workstations may also be a part of a plan by the university’s Zoology department to create a Centre for Biodiversity Research focusing on Eastern and Northern Canada. Stacey said the school is already in talks with agencies like Environment Canada’s Nature Watch program, which is a way for people to collect nature information and send it to Environment Canada. The data here includes frog watches, or even worm watches. “They picked what they believe are environmental indicators,” she said. “When frogs suddenly start disappearing — that’s usually a good sign that they’re some damage to the environment.”

At McGill, the donated equipment will allow the school to conduct entirely new forms of research. This work focuses on proteomics: the use of a cell map to characterize the protein content of the cell at the sub-cellular level. The idea is that the location in the cell will give information about its function.

“A lot of the genome stuff has not been successful at finding genes as markers for diseases because genes may do different things at different places,” said professor Robert Kearney, who works in the department of biomedical science at McGill. “Looking at the organelles, you’ll be able to see protein changes and things that have occurred in lower concentrations.”

This is extremely compute-intensive work, Kearney added.

“We need to be able to handle large numbers of samples over a long time,” he said. “This will allow us to handle more samples more quickly.”

Lynn Anderson, vice-president of marketing, business at HP Canada, said grant applications were not open to the public but specific schools were invited.

“We looked for schools in a leading-edge field that could benefit from what Itanium and what HP’s system offers them,” she said. “(The hardware) here progresses or speeds up whatever the area they’re focused on, whatever the adaptation.”

Stacey said she was stunned by the efficiency of the granting procedure, which was decided about three weeks after she submitted her application in late August.

“This is the fastest grant procedure I have ever gone through in my entire life,” she said. “It was all electronic, which was great . . . there was extremely fast turnaround.”

“There was a lot of pre-work on our part internally before we took it to them,” explained Doug Cooper, country manager for Intel of Canada. “That’s important whenever you’re coordinating two companies’ objectives and directions — although we tend to be pretty much aligned on education activities.”

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