The Toronto Star: U of T supercomputer probes origins of the universe

June 18, 2009 in in_the_news, news

Link to Toronto Star article on SciNet

Jun 18, 2009:

U of T supercomputer probes origins of the universe
Go on. Ask this IBM System x iDataPlex to do as many calculations as there are stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.  Hold on. It won’t take a second. Not even close to one.Although its name may be ungainly, the University of Toronto’s new supercomputer performs so elegantly it can churn through 300 trillion pieces of information in the time it took Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to run 10 metres at a Toronto track meet last week.And with a measly 200 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, galactic-sized calculations will be child’s play.But the new computer – which vaults to the position of Canada’s most powerful upon having its last piece fired up today – will be charged with solving both astronomical and earthbound problems.

“This is to computing what the CN Tower was to architecture in Canada,” says Chris Pratt, an executive with IBM Canada.

“It has the ability to simulate and predict about 1,000 years of the Earth’s climate in about four days.”

Built for U of T’s SciNet Consortium, which includes the school’s research hospitals, the computer will be working on everything from medical imaging and the likely progress of climate change to the forces at play as the universe dawned some 13 billion years ago.

The system, which began operating in stages last year, puts some 30,240 of the world’s most powerful Intel processors together in 45 file-like stacks. It can run as many of those processors as required.

And, according to the latest TOP500 ranking of supercomputers, it enters full service as the world’s 12th most powerful.

That ranking has already helped SciNet attract world-class research, including a share of the work on the origins of the universe that will be conducted by the Large Hadron Collider project in Geneva in September. The collider will smash protons together at near-light speeds, to try to emulate conditions around the time of the big bang.

The new Toronto computer won a prestigious place among a select group of similar facilities across the globe that will try to find the big bang signatures among billions and billions of such daily collisions.

It will also be used to simulate protein creation and interactions, and help crunch the numbers on ice cap melting and weather conditions that will come with climate change.

Such computing prowess requires a correspondingly impressive input of energy – enough to power as many as 4,000 homes, Pratt says. The resulting heat generation would fry both the computer and the building in which it’s housed, but for the computer’s unique, water-based cooling system.

The system pipes water via tubes strung throughout the computer, often down to the microchip level, and dissipates it through heat exchangers on the roof.