NSF Grant to Build One of World’s Top Supercomputers

Research on everything from energy exploration to drug discovery will be enhanced with a $27 million grant to build one of the world's most advanced supercomputers at UT Austin.

Click to view a slideshow.

Click to view a slideshow. Select "Show Info" to see captions that go with each photo in slideshow.

Engineering research on everything from weather forecasting, climate modeling, energy exploration and drug discovery will be enhanced at The University of Texas at Austin and around the nation thanks to a $27.5 million grant to deploy and support one of the most advanced supercomputers in the world at the university's Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC.)

The new system, called Stampede, is funded by the National Science Foundation and will be built by TACC in partnership with Dell and Intel to support for four years the nation's scientists in addressing the most challenging engineering and scientific problems. NSF is providing $27.5 million immediately and Stampede is expected to be up and running in January 2013. The estimated investment will be more than $50 million over four years when the operations budget is included; the Stampede project may be renewed in 2017, which would enable four additional years of open science research on a successor system.

"It's tremendously exciting on multiple levels. First, we'll get to deploy a scientific instrument that will enable 1,000 different scientific projects over four years," said TACC Director Jay Boisseau. "And we'll enable scientific discoveries that weren't possible before."

Stampede also solidifies the university's standing as a world leader in supercomputing, and it will likely serve as a major recruiting tool for the brightest faculty and students.

For faculty at the Cockrell School of Engineering, whose research hinges on access to massive computational calculations, visualization and data-intensive computing, Stampede will open doors to new scientific frontiers that were not reachable in the past.

"Bigger machines expand what you can do and make things feasible that weren't feasible before," said Thomas Hughes, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES), who uses TACC computing capabilities for his research. "Very often there is a threshold or boundary for what you can do [on a supercomputer], and as machines like Stampede get more powerful, those thresholds become obsolete."

How a supercomputer can save a life

Hughes is among one of the biggest users of TACC's current supercomputers, Ranger, Lonestar 4 and Longhorn. He and his colleagues use supercomputing to help guide best practices for cardiologists.

Rather than relying on earlier computer models — where simple two-dimensional geometry shared little resemblance to actual human anatomy — supercomputing has enabled Hughes to build 3-D patient-specific models of blood flow through the heart and blood vessels. Medical doctors can now use Hughes' work to better understand how various medical interventions in the heart and vessels affect blood flow. As a result, crucial information can be provided about the safety and effectiveness of commonly used devices like stents, angioplasties and bypass grafts.

"But there's still a big unmet need," said Hughes, who was recently inducted into the United Kingdom's Royal Society. Stampede will aid him in filling it.

His current research is centered on developing a nanoparticle encased drug that can be released into a patient to treat one of the most common causes of heart attacks and strokes: vulnerable plaque build-up within artery walls.

Current supercomputing capabilities are limited, however, and must be improved before scientists and surgeons can discern vulnerable plaques in the artery in order to treat them. Hughes said Stampede's robust capability will bring the scientific community a step closer to making this distinction – and, ultimately, to saving lives.

Monitoring the earth with supercomputers

For Omar Ghattas, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Jackson School of Geosciences and ICES, the research stakes – and benefits of Stampede – are just as high.

Ghattas uses TACC supercomputers for everything from modeling and tracking how earthquake stress waves propagate through the Earth and affect urban areas to how melting ice sheets in Antarctica will increase sea levels.

"More ice is flowing off portions of the continent and the question is why?" Ghattas said.

Answering that will be crucial to the dialogue and policy around global climate change, but – until now – supercomputing models used by climate researchers like Ghattas could not quantify uncertainties in ice sheet models.

"It's like resolution in a camera – we're always trying to increase the pixels in our cameras, and Stampede is faster, has more memory and let's us put more resolution into models," Ghattas said. "In our models of Antarctic ice sheet flow, we can selectively take the grid size down from 20-30 kilometers to 500 meters."

The Stampede system will allow more resolution and more physics to be incorporated into models than ever before. At the same time, the system can run more simulations simultaneously than any existing supercomputer – thus allowing scientists to explore the effects of uncertain parameters in predictive models.

"Stampede will usher in a new era of computational simulation in which observational and experimental data are assimilated into large-scale models to create better predictions, accompanied by quantified uncertainties," Ghattas said.

The third pillar of scientific discovery

Thanks to continuously improving supercomputers, computational science has become the third pillar of scientific discovery. It complements theory and physical experimentation, and allows scientists to explore phenomena that are too big, small, fast or dangerous to investigate in the laboratory – like the research of Cockrell School Professors Clint Dawson and Mary Wheeler.

Dawson, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, uses TACC supercomputers to create sophisticated computer simulations that predict everything from how coastal regions to oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill are impacted by hurricanes.

Wheeler, a noted computational researcher and the Ernest and Virginia Cockrell Chair in Engineering, uses complex algorithms and computation to figure out what's occurring under the Earth's surface and to describe subsurface processes. Such processes include oil and gas recovery, the spread of groundwater contaminants and the viability of carbon sequestration.

Similar to how it will aid Ghattas and Hughes, Stampede could enable both Wheeler and Dawson to run larger and more complex simulations and further refine their models and predictions.

Attracting excellence

In addition to the scientific discoveries made possible by Stampede, the system also positions the university as a world leader in computing – an enormous feat given TACC's relatively short but increasingly important role in the supercomputing field.

The center was newly reorganized in 2001 when it officially began supporting computational researchers at the university and throughout the national academic community. Since then, TACC has made a name for itself by winning one competitive grant after another to build or expand supercomputers.

It's this acclaim and momentum that's already helped attract some of the world's leading computation experts to the university, like George Biros, an expert on large-scale computer simulations in biomedicine.

Biros is developing complex simulations that will enable scientists and engineers to better understand such phenomena in blood flow as clotting, damage and drug transport.

He joined the university this fall after leaving an associate professor position at Georgia Institute of Technology.

"One of the big factors in my decision is that UT has all of the infrastructure, leadership and technology in place," he said. "Good instrumentation and state-of-the-art facilities always play a significant role in attracting bright people."

Ghattas agrees. Before joining the university in 2005, he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University – home to one of the top supercomputing centers at the time, the Pittsburg Supercomputing Center.

When he visited The University of Texas at Austin, TACC did not yet have the computing arsenal it has today with the supercomputers Ranger, Lonestar 4, Longhorn and now Stampede.

"TACC had modest facilities at the time, but just talking to Jay and the people there, you immediately got a sense of the vision," Ghattas said. "After seeing their energy and excitement I knew something big would happen."

Ghattas accepted a position at the university, and shortly after in 2007, TACC won Ranger.

"I think TACC has now established UT Austin as the number one place and university in the world for supercomputing," Ghattas said. "Having Stampede on campus will energize a whole culture of supercomputing that will help us attract faculty and students. At the same time, it will help attract resources from agencies and foundations who are keen on supporting computational work that capitalizes on Stampede."