The Current | December 13, 1999

New computing tools are making life easier for UM-St. Louis researchers

by Josh Renaud

Researchers at the University of Missouri--St. Louis are finding it much easier to solve complex problems thanks to some innovative new tools developed by Campus Computing.

One of those tools is a special Beowulf-class cluster computer called Valhalla. Beowulf clusters are made of many ordinary computers linked together in a network. The resources of the computers are combined using special software, and the cluster acts as one powerful machine, able to perform many calculations at the same time.

"Say you have two calculations that could be done at the same time because one is not dependent on the results from another," explained Gary Stiehr, a senior who works in Campus Computing as a department assistant. "On one computer with one processor, you have to do one calculation and then the next, so it takes [twice as long]. If you have two computers [connected in a cluster], you can start one [calculation] on one processor and one on another, and they will both finish in the time it takes one to finish."

With as many as 14 computers connected in this way, Valhalla is often able to reach speeds of about 6,300 MHz when applications take advantage of its parallel processors, Stiehr said. By comparison, current fast consumer desktop computers run at 600 MHz.

The ability to do many calculations at once makes Valhalla the perfect tool for researchers doing complex mathematical work.

"Calculations that took 40 to 50 hours on a workstation in my laboratory now take only 4 to 5 hours on the cluster," wrote Bill Welsh, a chemistry professor, in a letter about his use of Valhalla to design pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. "This has led to a tremendous acceleration of our drug design and discovery efforts on this project."

Because of Valhalla, researchers like James Campbell, a management information systems professor, are able to tackle harder problems and create more realistic models than before.

"A lot of the work that's been done in the area I'm working on [transportation networks] has been with small data sets of five, 10,15, 20, or 25 cities," Campbell said. "You can say certain things with 10 cities, but you don't know how general the conclusions you can draw will be. If you can look at 200 cities instead of 10, it's going to be a lot better."

"Another" internet

UM-St. Louis has given researchers another powerful tool by becoming a member of the "Internet-2," a dedicated educational network with much more bandwidth than the existing internet.

The original internet began as a military and then a university research network. Now it is dominated by commercial interests, Siegel said, and most research projects won't work in that environment.

"The Internet-2 basically provides a very, very high-speed connection to the internet, but it will be limited to researchers," Siegel said.

Researchers can solve problems and create complex models on Valhalla, but using the Internet 2, they will be able to share their discoveries in real time with colleagues around the world.

"Normally a researcher has to be on-site if you're doing testing in real time and looking at images through a telescope, for example," said Jerrold Siegel, coordinator of Campus Computing. "You have to be there because you need instantaneous feedback. Now you'll be able to run the machine as if it was in the next room. [Internet 2] removes the constraint of locale."

A researcher like Welsh can manipulate a three-dimensional object, such as a molecule, and a colleague across the country can see the model move in real-time, Siegel explained. There is so much bandwidth, the two could even have a conversation as they both work on the model.

Power without the price

One point that has Campus Computing officials smiling is the price tag of the new tools. UM--St. Louis' connection to Internet-2 actually cost nothing, Siegel said, and Valhalla was relatively inexpensive to build.

"This is really a win-win situation," Campbell said. Valhalla "gives us something we couldn't afford otherwise. For a state university, you can't go out and buy a $50 million supercomputer. It seems like we're getting a tremendous resource at a tremendous price."

The win-win situation appears to have a bright future, as well. Stiehr and Siegel both have big ideas on different applications for future Beowulf clusters and the Internet-2.

"You know, the [student computing] labs are closed at night," Siegel said. "[What if] at night the lab becomes a supercomputer, and during the day it becomes a lab?"

"Before, that wasn't a concept you really thought about, because they were separate computers," Stiehr said. "Now that we are clustering different computers, anywhere you have a bunch of separate machines, they can be strung together."

Internet-2 access will be available to UM--St. Louis researchers very soon, Siegel said, while Valhalla is operational right now. Siegel said he wasn't sure how heavy the demand for the new tools might become.

"Campbell is a good example of somebody who is going to try problems, techniques and solutions that he wouldn't have without [these resources]," Siegel said. "So the question is, how many other people like that are there out there? This is really just the tip of the iceberg, I believe."