High-performance computer lab invests in Sun servers

The High Performance Computer Virtual Laboratory said Thursday a $22-million investment in Sparc-based servers running Solaris will quadruple the performance of infrastructure used by hundreds of Canadian researchers.

Based in Kingston

at Queen’s University, the High Performance Computer Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL) represents a partnership with four other post-secondary schools, including Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the Royal Military College of Canada and Ryerson University, where a Sun Microsystems “workup environment” has already been set up. HPCVL would not disclose the number of Sun servers in the cluster but said they included Sun Fire E25K machines and Sun 6130 StorEdge arrays. Sun has been among HPCVL’s vendor partners for the past six years.

HPCVL serves more than 120 research groups made up of about 500 researchers who use its resources to study stem cells and perform mathematical experiments in physics, economics and psychology. Dr. Ken Edgecombe, the facility’s executive director, said that number is expected to reach more than 180 groups and 700 researchers by 2007, as more university research becomes computationally-oriented.

Edgecombe said one of the challenges in managing the HPCVL was working through an often-lengthy grant application process while anticipating the future computing needs of researchers.

“We’re looking at the total cost of what we’re purchasing but also the total cost of ownership over the lifetime,” he said. That includes conforming to rules set by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, one of HPCVL’s funders, that IT infrastructures operate for a minimum of five years. 

“You’re never really sure that you’re going to get it right, but if we put a huge amount of power here, you can be pretty sure that it’s going to be used,” Edgecombe said.

HPCVL is in regular conversation with researchers and is beginning to offer training sessions around parallel computing, which is starting to replace the serial calculations that had been the mainstay of research, he added.

Sun Microsystems of Canada director of education and research Lynne Zucker said winning the HPCVL business involved not only demonstrating it had the right hardware and software but the ability to improve the way resources are accessed.

“As you move into more advanced medical research, drug trials, you need to have compute performance that is really secure,” she said. 

Edgecombe said HPCVL is working with Sun on a portal based on its Grid Engine that will offer that security. It is expected to be complete by the end of this year. The HPCVL is also hiring additional technical staff.

“It’s been a skeleton crew, I would say, to this date,” he said. “We need to know that we’ve got enough people that if the computers go down at 5:05 pm on a Friday that it will still be up and running on the Monday.”

Zucker said one of Sun’s focal points is addressing the long-term archiving needs of HPCVL users.

“Researchers, like the rest of us, are increasingly creating unbelievable volumes of data,” she said. “There’s still a lot of innovation going on in network file systems and in storage technologies.” 

Sun is among several vendors hoping to secure a larger share of the high-performance computing space. Earlier this week, Dell Canada announced a project with the University of Sherbrooke to create what could be the country’s fastest supercomputer.

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