University of Vermont

University Communications

Quiet Start, Quick Work for Advanced Computing Center

Release Date: 12-22-2006

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Email: joshua.brown@uvm.edu
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Try to draw an intervertebral disc, the watery pad that lies between each vertebrae in the spine. It doesn’t look too complicated: a bit like a donut with a fibrous outer dough and a soft jelly filling. Now try to draw it in motion, squeezed about as the spine twists and flexes. This is not so easy. Next, add in the biochemical, structural and mechanical forces that affect the disc’s shape, composition and action. Express all these forces mathematically and plug them into matrix equations. Your goal: to make a reasonably accurate model of the disc.

Done yet?

Yes, it takes a whopping load of information, and numerous forms of expertise, to make a model that begins to approximate the real disc in a person’s back. And to run this model through a computer requires a whopping load of memory and processing speed.

That’s why professor James Iatridis and his colleagues studying the intervertebral disc are working through the Vermont Advanced Computing Center. This new hub for computing and learning at the University of Vermont has quietly been coming into being—and up to speed—over several years.

“This center is more than just high-performance computers,” says Fran Carr, the university’s vice president for research and dean of graduate studies, who has been leading the start-up of the center through a grant from NASA. “It’s designed to support the asking and answering of new kinds of questions, and the fusion of disciplines.”

The team studying the spinal disc draws on researchers from the departments of orthopaedics & rehabilitation, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and computer science, including professors Ian Stokes and Jeffrey Laible. “If we look at how science and engineering has been done in the last 10 to 15 years,” says UVM chemist Chris Allen, who recently has stepped in as interim director of the new center, “we see much more collaboration—and computation has exploded as a way of solving problems.”

Like modeling the intervetebral disc. “It takes a lot of runs,” through the computers to test each variation of the model, says Mack Gardner-Morse, a research engineer working with Iatridis. “These are huge matrices. To get a solution requires large memory machines, bigger than the 32-bit memory addresses available on most personal computers.”

“And there are a lot of parameters to look at here. So speed is an issue too,” he says, noting that the VACC offers not only more memory and processing speed than has previously been available on campus, but is also developing capacity for parallel processing of information, solving several parts of a larger problem at the same time.

The VACC’s machines include 56 dual-processor IBM “compute nodes” and other IBM machines that are “plenty fast,” says Mike Austin, lead system administrator for UVM’s computer services, who supports the technical side of the new center.

“We have a thriving partnership with IBM,” says Carr, who expects that the center will lead to ongoing research partnerships with the company and other partners outside the university.

“This is a leapfrogging, a jump forward, of research capacity at UVM,” says Chris Allen, noting that the VACC aims to be helpful to numerous researchers, from climate modelers using satellite images to medical imaging specialists studying the inner workings of the body; from engineers developing new complex polymers to geographers studying urban growth.

Headquartered in the renovated first and second floors of Farrell Hall on the Trinity Campus, the new computing center is slated for an official opening the spring of 2007, but dozens of researchers are already running programs and problems through the new machines.

The VACC—which received leadership in its development from professors Russ Tracy and Jeffrey Bond, among others—will be adjacent to the new National University Transportation Center and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. With these natural partners, the center aims to gather researchers not just via desktop access to its distributed computation cluster and shared memory machines, but also to its on-location “think space,” with flat-panel interactive displays supporting live data feeds, where researchers can gather informally to probe ideas.

Here, and in rooms for 3-D “immersive visualization,” and a “decision theatre,” the center, “will be more than a tool where you get a single answer at the end,” says Carr, who credits Senator Patrick Leahy for helping the center come into being. “It will support a culture where researchers work together with advanced technologies to define problems and new ways of approaching them.”

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To learn more about the Vermont Advanced Computing Center, visit its website at " http://www.uvm.edu/~vacc or contact Chris Allen, interim director, at christopher.allen@uvm.edu, or Mike Austin, systems administrator, at michael.austin@uvm.edu, 802-656-8785.