ITaP supercomputer is remote guest of honor at Iowa high-performance computing school

July 14, 2010

Moffett, ITaP’s SiCortex supercomputer, was the center of attention recently for students in the annual Iowa High Performance Computing (IHPC) Summer School.

Iowa Professor Greg Howes, the course instructor, contacted the TeraGrid looking for a system on which his students could practice parallel programming. That put him in contact with Bill Whitson, director of research support at ITaP’s Rosen Center for Advanced Computing. Purdue is a partner in the TeraGrid, providing through ITaP both hardware and software resources for the National Science Foundation-backed research cyberinfrastructure.

Whitson said the Rosen Center’s SiCortex system was well suited for what Howes wanted to offer the students in his class—hands-on experience running and debugging parallel code on a relatively large number of processors with a rapid turnaround on the results.

While the supercomputer is used heavily by some research groups on the Purdue campus “it has enough cores that we were able to reserve a significant number of processors for Greg and his students without impacting our normal user community,” Whitson said.

The SiCortex, while making use of lower-speed processors to reduce power consumption, also is designed to be highly parallel, employing thousands of processors linked by an extraordinarily fast custom communications system.

“For this kind of course, it was just outstanding,” said Howes, an Iowa physics and astronomy professor whose own research centers on demanding computational plasma physics calculations. Howes thinks each of the students left the course believing “not only can I write and run parallel programs, I have done it.”

The two-day session is for graduate students in any field who will be using high-performance computing in their research. Students from 14 departments at Iowa--in fields as diverse as biochemistry and physics, economics and astronomy, geography and electrical and computer engineering--participated this year. The 2010 session was held the last week of May.

Howes has two major goals for the course, which emphasizes hands-on experience. One is to help researchers who are running serial programs now start to do parallel programming. The other is to help those doing some parallel programming already improve their codes and start making use of national high-performance computing resources through the TeraGrid.

In part, the class addresses the need for parallel-programming expertise in order to take full advantage of the petascale-class machines being added to the national research inventory by the NSF. “We’re way behind the hardware,” Howes said. “There is a huge need for high-performance computing education.”

Whitson said that’s why ITaP wanted to help with the Iowa class. “We need more people offering classes like Greg’s,” he said. “I was glad we could contribute to its success in some small way.”

Iowa, meanwhile, is engaged in a program to expand its on-campus high-performance computing hardware as well, along with the number of people using high-performance computing on campus.

The course achieved its purpose in the case of Christopher Lu, an Iowa mechanical engineering student.

“I have already managed to parallelize a particle advection code (without collisions), within 24 hours of taking your course,” Lu reported to Howes. “I hope this is something that will continue to benefit many students in the future.”

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

Originally posted: July 14, 2010