Computing in the Wild West

By Kelli Stevens

On July 28, 2003 the University of Calgary received their hardware component for an initiative known as WestGrid.

Information Technologies is excited over the latest addition to the university’s computer systems. Installed in the Math Sciences basement, this new cluster of processors allows scientists from across the country to design medications, forecast weather patterns, run complex computer codes and perform many other elaborate calculations.

Eight British Columbian and Albertan universities, including the University of Alberta, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, have other components that will create the WestGrid, a 44 million-dollar project. WestGrid will provide high performance computing, networking, and collaboration tools for each of these schools, as well as account holders from across the country.

"This will bring U of C into possession of one of North America’s top 500 supercomputers," said Team Leader Research Support Paul Wellings.

According to WestGrid’s website, U of C will have a Cluster of Multi-Processors to message passing parallel computing.

When this system becomes operational by the end of September, graduate students, researchers, scientists, and professors will all benefit.

"A single university would be unable to afford the resources required for today’s cutting edge research," said IT Associate Director, Harold Esche.

But when a number of institutions band together and obtain provincial and federal funding for a project like WestGrid, high performance computing becomes feasible. Researchers in fields such as computational chemistry, bioscience, medicine, and engineering will use WestGrid to work collaboratively and share applications as if they were working on a single supercomputer.

Esche emphasized researchers will use WestGrid as an interface to hide all the technological complications related to the grid. For example, an astronomer in Vancouver can send data to the best machine for the job for processing, while remaining oblivious to the type of technology required for his or her work.

Of course, there are often glitches related to initiating a technological development of this magnitude and Wellings admits "the system will take time to work seamlessly."

When it does, Esche sees the possibility of connecting to other grids and suggested the benefits of WestGrid may become worldwide.

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