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College of Engineering launches center for high-end computing systems

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 25, 2006 – Three years ago a group of computer scientists and high-performance computing experts at Virginia Tech made supercomputing history when they built System X, a 2200 processor Apple G5 cluster. System X debuted in November 2003 as the third most powerful supercomputer in the world, and the fastest academic supercomputer at the time. Today, motivated by the lessons learned from the System X project, and in order to partner with current users of System X and other high-end computing resources, the College of Engineering (CoE) has established the Center for High-End Computing Systems (CHECS).

Srinidhi Varadarajan, associate professor of computer science (CS), and the primary architect of System X, serves as director of the new center. Cal Ribbens, also an associate professor in the CS department, is the associate director. Another core member of the original System X team, Jason Lockhart, acts as the primary liaison between CHECS and the CoE in his position as director of high performance computing and technology innovation for the college.

“System X received worldwide publicity, from the New York Times to the Times of India, due to its remarkable price/performance characteristics and its many novel features,” Ribbens explained. It was the largest InfiniBand cluster at the time, the first large cluster to run Apple’s OS X operating system, and the first academic machine to surpass 10 teraflops of sustained performance.

Since its construction, System X has been “the workhorse of the high-end computing facilities maintained by Virginia Tech Advanced Research Computing (VTARC). Over 14 million CPU hours have been allocated on the system, providing unprecedented computational power to Virginia Tech computational scientists and engineers,” Ribbens said.

With the transition of System X from a high-risk/high-reward project in cost-effective supercomputing design and deployment to a production platform for large-scale computational science and engineering (CSE), some of the key contributors to the System X project are now moving back to their day jobs: research and education in high-end computing systems.

“Our aim is to build a world-class computer systems research group in the service of high-end computing,” Varadarajan said. “CHECS members will investigate a broad array of problems and design a wide range of technologies—with the goal of developing the next generation of powerful and usable high-end computing resources.”

Center for High-End Computing Systems members are collaborating closely with CoE computational science and engineering practitioners. CHECS will provide computational and consulting services to CSE researchers; in return CSE researchers will supply challenging problems which serve as motivation and evaluation test beds for new systems research.

“Center members recognize that high-end resources must be powerful in a broad sense (i.e., high-performance, high-capacity, high-throughput, high-reliability, etc.), and at the same time they must be more usable and affordable than current HPC systems. Toward that end, the center is pursuing a broad research agenda in areas such as processor and memory architectures, operating systems, run-time systems, networking and communication subsystems, file systems, fault-tolerance, scheduling and load-balancing, power-aware systems and algorithms, numerical algorithms and programming models. The goal is to build computing systems and environments that can efficiently and usably span the scales from department-sized machines to national-scale resources,” Ribbens added.

See the CHECS website for more information.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,500 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 1,800 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.