Locally created technology could accelerate supercomputer


From crunching the human genome to counting microbes in our stomachs, supercomputers have become a key tool in medical research.

Just weeks ago, scientists at San Francisco's Gladstone Institute explained how their team linked computers into clusters to analyze long strands of DNA, "If I try to do the analysis that my group did on a regular laptop or desktop computer, it would have taken decades and decades," Katherine Pollard, Ph.D., of the Gladstone Institute said.

Now to help with other data-intense projects, the Department of Energy is hoping to create possibly the fastest research computer on the planet at Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee.

Dr. Sumit Gupta with Santa Clara-based NVIDIA explains that it won't be exactly new, just accelerated with technology developed here in the Bay Area, "The challenge we're trying to solve is that supercomputers today need to become much bigger to be able to do real scientific work."

NVIDIA is a company best known for producing graphics accelerators used in high end computer gaming.

Now a new generation of those accelerators, known as Tesla GPUs, are being integrated into the Titan computer located at Oak Ridge, "It turns out that graphics for gaming is very similar to scientific computing we need to do in super computers," Gupta said.

According to Gupta, a single Tesla performing multiple calculations simultaneously was able to simulate the movement of more than half of million stars. Ultimately, helping researchers determine the odds of earth being thrown out of our own galaxy during a collision between the Milky Way and another galaxy which is predicted to happen billions of years from now.

And that power to chart complicated data is revolutionizing more than research, it's also changing medical imaging, giving doctors a virtual window inside a patient's body.

One system powered by the GPUs allows surgeons to operate on a beating heart by turning it into a static image. At the same time, the processor translates the doctor's movements to a robotic surgical system, automatically compensating for the movement of the heart.

Thousands of Tesla GPU modules will be fitted into the Oak Ridge super computer, ultimately making it eight times faster and capable of carrying out trillions of operations per second.

Gupta notes that just a decade ago this speed was unheard of, "The fastest supercomputer in the world just 12 years ago, is now possible in a single GPU that goes in your PC."

The upgrade is expected to be completed this fall. It will also make the Oak Ridge computer more energy efficient, which is a significant priority. The Department of Energy currently spends several million dollars a year just to power the facility.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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