Academics & Research

Computer donation sparks ideas for future


Computing power for faculty and researchers at UH is about to get a boost thanks to a donation of a cluster consisting of 128 nodes from TOTAL E&P USA Inc.

“We did some comparison of candidates for universities to receive the cluster donation. All the factors ended up saying the University of Houston,” Jing Wen, supervisor of TOTAL said about the gift. | Courtesy of uh.edu

This cluster, a collection of individual computers that can be used for increased computational power, is not only a cutting-edge piece of hardware but will also be programmed and used by UH as an attempt to increase efficiency, said professor of computer science Barbara Chapman.

“It’s like having a lot of PCs that are hooked together and you can program them as if they were one big machine. That’s actually really important because Dr. Gabriel and I have both received funding from Total to work to program this machines. The hard part is programming them,” Chapman said.

“One of the challenges is being able to program these kinds of machines efficiency. We try to use them to solve very big problems. You need to have a good way to write programs and get them to run. Total has funded both Dr. Gabriel and myself in different activities that support different ways of programming them. There’s not just one way to do it.”

Efficient programming of clusters and multi-core systems can lead to increased productivity when it comes to data analysis. Accounts to the cluster have already been distributed to some departments, allowing them to use the computational power.

“Generally speaking, (the cluster is useful) if you have these very, very large problems that you need to solve. Like analyzing a lot of data from oil, or in Houston it’s very popular to get simulations from NASA, simulating the re-entry of space vehicles. The problems are very large, and you need to split them up into chunks that fit onto one PC at a time. We give out a number of accounts to faculty members within our department as well as outside our department,” said associate professor of computer science Edgar Gabriel.

“We have faculty members from physics, mathematics, engineering. Basically, they have very large simulations to run. Now it is less of, ‘How can I enhance my system to get there?’ but, ‘How can I actually solve the problem that I’m having?’ From that perspective, there’s a larger group of faculty at the University that benefits from it.”

This technology can be used not only for number crunching, but also for keeping UH competitive, Gabriel said.The access UH students have to this state-of-the-art equipment allows them to learn how to use it properly before entering the job market.

“The oil companies complain that when our students graduate, they don’t have all the required expertise,” Gabriel said. “These kinds of donations are actually helping us to overcome that and make sure that they have access to that.”

While this donation gives the University a leg-up, it also helps TOTAL, said Jing Wen, a technical computing supervisor for the company. The company considered proximity, housing capabilities and the types of research occurring at the universities when it was considering places to put the cluster.

“UH and Total have had a very good alliance in technology in the past. We have a good relationship. It’s also a win-win situation for an oil and gas company that has research topics associated with it,” Wen said.

This progress-inducing donation is hopefully the start for more efficiency and research for the University for all departments, Chapman said.

“Nowadays there is a very high correlation between having high-end computing resources — HPC resources — and research output. Computations are so central, not just for hard-core physics or chemistry but even in social sciences or even English, there are many research projects that rely on computing,” Chapman said.

“The University believes it needs to have better provision of HPC resources. I’m hoping that this won’t be the end of the story.”

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