Texas Unleashes Stampede for Science


You hear it before you see it—a roar like a factory in full production. But instead of cars or washing machines, this factory produces scientific knowledge.

Stampede, the newest supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) and one of the most advanced scientific research instruments in the world, fills aisle after aisle of a new 11,000-square-foot data center on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus. Through the glass machine-room doors, you can see 182 racks holding more than 500,000 interconnected computer processors. Inside, wind whips from in-row coolers, wires snake over the racks, and chilled water courses below the floor as Stampede performs calculations on behalf of scientists and engineers nationwide.

Over the past year, TACC staff designed, built, and deployed Stampede, working closely with Dell and Intel engineers and University researchers. TACC and The University of Texas at Austin competed against the top supercomputing centers and universities to claim one of the most advanced systems in the world—and won. The award was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with an estimated investment of more than $50 million over a four-year period. The project may be renewed in 2017, which would enable four more years of open science research.

According to the November 2012 Top 500 list of supercomputers, Stampede is the seventh-most powerful advanced computing system on the planet and the most powerful in the U.S. dedicated to academic research, capable of outperforming 100,000 home computers.

On Wednesday, leaders from government, academia, and industry—including The University of Texas at Austin’s President Bill Powers, Jay Boisseau of TACC, Diane Bryant of Intel, Farnam Jahanian of the NSF, and U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith—dedicated Stampede and kicked off a new era of advanced computing at the university and nationally.

“This is a proud moment for The University of Texas,” President Powers says of the supercomputer. “Stampede will serve UT and the nation as it enables scientific exploration that would not otherwise be possible, and it continues TACC’s tradition of providing powerful, comprehensive, and leading-edge advanced computing technologies to the open science community.”

As its name suggests, Stampede harnesses the power of a half-million computer processors and combines them to tackle ever larger and more challenging computational problems. Sixteen times more powerful than the recently decommissioned Ranger system it replaces (which was most recently ranked as the 50th-fastest supercomputer in the world), Stampede will enable scientists to address new classes of problems they’ve never been able to approach before.

“How often does a scientist get an instrument that’s an order of magnitude more powerful than the one it replaces?” says Omar Ghattas, the John A. and Katherine G. Jackson Chair in Computational Geosciences. “It’s a massive step.”

In recent years, supercomputers have become critical general-purpose instruments for conducting scientific research. Known as the “third pillar” of science, computer simulations and models complement theory and experimentation and allow researchers to explore phenomena that cannot be captured via observation or laboratory experiments.

Supercomputers also allow scholars to mine massive databases of information for digital needles-in-haystacks that otherwise would go unnoticed—such as subtle changes in DNA or the signs of a newly discovered galaxy in a far corner of the universe.

Closer to home, the weather report you checked before going outside, the car you drove to work, the flu shot that protected you from illness—all of these were, at least in part, designed, improved, or predicted by a supercomputer.

The reason supercomputers are so important is simple: The universe is governed by mathematical equations, and computers can solve these equations far faster than humans. Enormous supercomputers, like Stampede, enable researchers to solve scientific problems that humans alone would find impossible—the kind that help predict where a hurricane will make landfall, how a new drug will interact with its target, or what mutations in our genetic code make us prone to developing certain diseases.

Stampede acts as a “computational microscope” that allows scientists to explore the inner dynamics of the cell better than with the best imaging devices; helps astronomers peer deeper into the universe’s past than is possible with the most powerful telescopes; enables researchers to develop new materials to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; identifies brain tumors more accurately; and discovers new medicines faster and less expensively than in a laboratory. Stampede will even help researchers in the digital arts and humanities study literature and music in ways they never imagined before.

In the past, supercomputers were often used for a small subset of science and engineering problems. However, systems like Stampede—with its comprehensive capabilities—allow many more users to simulate, visualize, analyze, store, and share their knowledge with others around the world.

Stampede, which came online in January 2013, is a remarkable machine, but it’s only as powerful as the scientists who use it. Research groups from The University of Texas at Austin and other top universities have already made significant discoveries using the system.

In the first three months of operations, approximately 600 projects and more than 1,200 scientists have used Stampede. These include top researchers in every field of inquiry from mechanical engineering to linguistics to neuroscience. In its lifetime, Stampede is expected to deliver the equivalent of more than 400,000 years of computing to tens of thousands of scientists. Imagine the results Stampede will enable across all fields of knowledge.

Aaron Dubrow works at the Texas Advanced Computer Center. This article first appeared on UT’s Know website.


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