Supercomputer comes to U of I researchers' rescue

The new machine is handling complex tasksfor the school's engineering professors.


MOSCOW — The supercomputer is only about the size of a microwave, but it has four terabytes of memory (1,000 gigabytes equals one terabyte) and 160 different processors, said Jim Alves-Foss, director of the University of Idaho's Center for Secure and Dependable Systems.

"It's very rare," said Alves-Foss, who knows of just one other computer center with as much memory.

What that means is the supercomputer has 1,000 times more memory than a standard computer, with about eight times as many processors, he said.

The supercomputer is essentially a computation server that can be accessed by researchers at all of U of I's locations in the state and can be used in a variety of fields, Alves-Foss said. The supercomputer's large capacity is why it's so significant to researchers - and why the university bought it in the first place.

Alves-Foss said U of I first started looking into finding a way to provide computers with larger memories when several faculty members mentioned the computers on campus already couldn't handle the work they were doing. The university submitted an application for a $300,000 major research instrumentation grant in early 2012 and received it that same summer, Alves-Foss said. The supercomputer was ordered last summer and installed this fall.

"It's up and running - people are doing experiments with it," he said.

And it might get even bigger. The National Science Foundation grant gave U of I three years to buy the equipment, get it installed and running, and then find matching funds. Alves-Foss said they're hoping to accomplish that by this summer, which would then double the supercomputer's memory to eight terabytes.

Gabriel Potirniche, an associate professor in mechanical engineering, is using the supercomputer to simulate thermoelectric generators designed to take heat from an exhaust pipe and convert it into electricity.

Potirniche said the simulations help him to test how the generators behave and their reliability before they are actually manufactured. The increased capacity of the supercomputer allows him to create even more accurate models because the computer can process the complicated geometries he uses in his research.

"Typical designs that were simulating on just a normal desktop would take weeks or months of running," Potirniche said. The supercomputer can do it in days.

Tao Xing, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering, is collecting data and using the supercomputer to create movies demonstrating how turbines floating in the ocean will react with the wind, along with several other variables.

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