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Pittsburgh's newest supercomputer tackles tough questions

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Westinghouse Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Program Manager Lynn Layman stands in front of Sherlock, the center’s newest supercomputer. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Westinghouse Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Program Manager Lynn Layman is reflected in part of Sherlock, the center’s newest supercomputer. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh's newest supercomputer is anything but elementary.

Dubbed Sherlock, it is capable of holding the data equivalent of every human heartbeat on Earth every 2.4 minutes or a graph of approximately 10 billion edges, officials at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center said Friday as they showed the device.

Its 1 terabyte of shared memory is equal to 1,000 iPads. That can be expanded as more users come on board to as much as 512 terabytes.

“This is already an extremely big sandbox,” said Nick Nystrom, director of strategic applications at the Supercomputing Center. “When they outgrow it, we'll build them a bigger one.” PSC is looking for users.

Sherlock was designed with lots of memory and the capacity for more for a specific purpose — to process large data sets and not necessarily for speed, although it's still a supercomputer.

Another supercomputer at the center, called Blacklight, which began operating in 2010, is much faster, capable of performing 37 trillion calculations per second, officials said.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is home to the world's fastest supercomputer, experts said. The Titan system there performed 17.59 quadrillion calculations per second.

Sherlock was designed to find relationships or patterns in large and complex bodies of information. It is the 14th supercomputer in the center's 27-year history, said Ralph Roskies, scientific director. It joins with computers like Mario, Big Ben and Blacklight, which are capable of performing billions of calculations per second.

Funded through the Strategic Technologies for Cyber­infrastructure program of the National Science Foundation, with a grant of more than $1 million, Sherlock could be used in assessing cyber security risks, detecting money laundering, operational risk in financial services, fraud detection, even baseball analytics, said Arvind Parthasarathi, president of YarcData, which built the uRiKA supercomputer that was enhanced by Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center technicians.

“Sherlock gives PSC the first system available to researchers that is optimized for a particularly difficult family of questions ... security, medicine, public health and social dynamics,” said Nystrom. “These problems cost individuals and society in time, money and human suffering. Sherlock also helps keep Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania at the forefront of high performance computing.”

Researchers like Bin Zhang, of the Fox School of Business at Temple University, said Sherlock has the potential to expand his research into clustering in social networks.

“With the help of Sherlock, I can finally observe the true size of social groups in real-world networks of millions to even a billion people,” he said.

Established in 1986, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Westinghouse Electric Co. From July 2011 through June 2012, the center provided more than 7.8 million processor hours to 917 Pennsylvania researchers from 40 institutions.

PSC has attracted more than $500 million from investment resources outside the state since its founding, Roskies said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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