Encore to ITaP's first supercomputer barn-raising is even better than the original

July 21, 2009

Last year ITaP staff and a small army of volunteers had the Steele supercomputer built by noon. The anticipation was that the new Coates cluster would take longer.

Coates is a larger project and it required installing special network cards. Then, the hardware used to mount and group the individual computers in the refrigerator-sized racks that form the supercomputing cluster turned out to require some adjustment, too.

So Coates was finished by, well, around 11 a.m.

Credit people like Nathan Heck, an ITaP security engineer who installed 66 of the network cards over a couple hours. Dwight McKay, director of systems engineering for ITaP research computing, said based on pre-build testing he figured the installers would be able to do 12 cards an hour.

“Concentration and motivation,” Heck quipped when asked for his secret.

Heck and other motivated workers did everything from unboxing the computers—and sorting all the packaging for recycling—to shuttling them to the basement machine room in the Mathematical Sciences Building, sliding them into the racks and plugging in the cabling to tie them all together into one big machine.

Nearly 300 volunteers from campus units around Purdue signed up to participate, along with out-of-town visitors from Indiana University, the University of Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. They worked with the kind of dispatch one might expect from a crew stacking sandbags to ward off a looming flood. The flurry of activity drew a stream of distinguished sightseers, including Purdue President France A. Córdova.

“It’s amazing how many people volunteered to get this all together,” said Andrea Leydet, an ITaP research computing intern who will be a senior in computer information technology at Purdue Calumet.

Leydet and Sara Lopez, also an ITaP summer intern, helped sort materials for recycling.

“I’m pretty excited,” said Lopez, a Purdue Calumet junior. “It’s my first time ever getting to do anything with a cluster. It’s a new experience.”

The experience was an old one for Matt Link, research computing systems director at Indiana. He helped build Steele in May 2008.

“I was cleaning up trash downstairs last year,” quipped Link, who helped make adjustments to the rack mounts for Coates. “I’ve moved up.”

Jerry Protheroe, Iowa campus technology’s research services manager, said he and colleague Jeffrey DeReus made the trip to get tips for a supercomputer project Iowa has in progress—and to help out as “payback” for assistance from ITaP’s John Campbell and Bill Whitson in applying Purdue’s “community cluster” model.

By midmorning Randy Herban of ITaP research computing could point to a graph on a laptop used to monitor the new system and announce that Coates was running research jobs already.

“This is live data,” Herban said pointing to a growing cascade of blue peaks moving across the screen. “Stuff is actually starting to happen.”

McKay joked that ITaP might just have to fabricate the computer chips for its next supercomputer along with installing the network cards. “Maybe that will slow us down,” he said.

Coates, like Steele, is a community cluster, paid for by faculty on campus who contributed research money to fund the purchase. The supercomputer is named for Clarence L. “Ben” Coates, head of Purdue's School of Electrical Engineering (now Electrical and Computer Engineering) from 1973 to 1983 and a driving force behind high-performance computing at Purdue.

Writer: Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue, 765-494-8167, gkline@purdue.edu

Originally posted: July 21, 2009