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Carter cluster moves to state-of-the-art modular computer center

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On the outside that may look like a shipping container deposited behind a security fence at the Purdue power plant, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

Inside, it is the new high-tech home of Purdue’s powerful Carter supercomputer. ITaP has moved the Carter cluster to a portable, self-contained, modular computer center manufactured by HP and linked the facility to campus research data storage with high-speed fiber optics, making everything work like Carter was still in the middle of campus.

The move makes room in the Mathematical Sciences Building for future supercomputers at Purdue, among them Purdue’s new Conte supercomputer, the fastest supercomputer for use by faculty at one school in the country. ITaP Research Computing (RCAC) is getting the Conte cluster ready for Purdue researchers by later this summer.

Carter, built in partnership with Intel in 2011, held the distinction of fastest campus supercomputer when it went online, but its move to the HP “POD” is hardly a sign that the cluster has become outdated. Carter still ranked 175th on the latest TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers in June and seventh among U.S. campus supercomputers.

The POD (short for Performance Optimized Data Center) is a worthy new home for what is still a top-flight high-performance computing cluster. The modular computer center is state-of-the-art technologically, cost- and space-efficient and secure with its location behind a fence at a site where Purdue physical facilities staff members are present 24/7. Surveillance cameras and an alarm system also protect it.

“The POD is designed for function only and so it does not look impressive but it’s a serious structure,” says computer science Professor Eugene Spafford, a leading cyber security expert and executive director of the Purdue-based Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS). “Legal documents and money are important to us and we lock them up in bank vaults. Our data is perhaps just as important, and the POD is locked, alarmed, climate-controlled, surveilled and access-controlled.”

The facility also offers big cost advantages over a new building, a building expansion or a building refit to accommodate new supercomputers — and advantages in operations costs and energy consumption as well. The modular computer center is very energy efficient, even making use of Indiana’s chilly winter temperatures for wintertime air conditioning.

Industry giants such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft make significant use of containerized data centers, not to mention the U.S. military, but Purdue was one of the first universities to do so. ITaP has housed Purdue’s Steele cluster, which is being retired, in the POD since 2010.

Gerry McCartney, Purdue CIO, vice president for information technology and Olga Oesterle England Professor of Technology, says Purdue's use of PODs is another way the University stays in the lead when it comes to providing computing resources for research.

“We all know that the half-life of technology is decreasing constantly, and that's as true for our supercomputers as it is for our smartphones,” McCartney says. “These containerized data centers give us flexibility to adapt to future technologies in a way that we never could by building a new data center and undergoing seeming endless reconstruction projects to adapt to the new technology. It is not elegant architecture, but highly secure, functional, and cost-effective.” Faculty members interested in touring the POD are welcome. Contact Donna Cumberland at ITaP Research Computing (RCAC),

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