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CMU joins forces in repurposing supercomputers

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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Supercomputers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory once went to the desert to die.

It was the place where officials could safely retire the shredded remains of the world's fastest processors, used to secure the nation's nuclear stockpile.

That's no longer necessary.

Officials at Los Alamos, the National Science Foundation, the New Mexico Consortium and Carnegie Mellon University joined forces to launch PRObE, a one-of-a-kind supercomputer research center using a cluster of 2,048 recently retired computers.

“They decommission them every three or four years because the new computers make so much better results,” said Garth Gibson, a professor of computer science and computer and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon who collaborated on the project.

Although the computers are functional, the risk of information escaping made it unfeasible to sell them. “So, they're shredded and buried in the desert,” he said.

Gibson said Gary Grider, Los Alamos' deputy division leader for high performance computing, got the idea for the PRObE center several years ago while decommissioning machines. PRObE stands for Parallel Reconfigurable Observational Environment.

Financed with a $10 million National Science Foundation grant, PRObE partners successfully decommissioned and saved the computer clusters for reuse. The center will become the world's first facility where computer systems experts could tap a supercomputer for research about supercomputers.

“Repurposing a supercomputer is hard. Building the first computer science research environment of this scale is an experiment in itself,” said Katharine Chartrand of the New Mexico Consortium. “I am amazed at the commitment of this partnership — the institutions, the individuals, the NSF — to making this resource available to the nation.”

Although the main facility will remain in Los Alamos, across the street from the National Lab, Carnegie Mellon's Parallel Data Lab in Pittsburgh will house two smaller centers.

Gibson said the Pittsburgh facility, described as a “staging cluster,” will allow researchers to perform small experiments and demonstrate to the PRObE committee that they're ready to request time on the facility in Los Alamos, known as Kodiak.

Usually supercomputers are dedicated to specific scientific research such as climate change, oil and gas exploration, or quantum physics.

“Unless they leave universities for government or industry jobs, researchers and students rarely have access to these expensive large-scale clusters,” Gibson said. “That means they don't get the training and education necessary to develop innovations.”

With the opening of PRObE, scientists will have the opportunity to experiment with supercomputers.

“This will allow a researcher to try something unconventional, or even potentially destructive, like wrapping a computer in some kind of insulation to see how long it takes to overheat,” Gibson said. “We are taking a resource, handing it to scientists and saying, ‘Do your research on a dedicated facility.' ”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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