UMass, Harvard, MIT and others investing $5M in high-performance computer center in Holyoke that’s key to academic research

  • The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke is shown in September 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John Goodhue, the executive director of Mass Green high Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, stands in one of the computer rooms at the data center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The view from the second floor window of the Mass Green high Performance Computing Center in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 11/10/2022 7:29:46 PM

HOLYOKE — Five of the state’s major higher education institutions are pumping more than $5 million into the 13-year-old high-performance computing center as part of an expansion that leaders say reflects the growing demand for computer power that’s crucial to academic research.

The Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center, located at 100 Bigelow St., provides key infrastructure on computationally intensive research projects across the campuses of the University of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Boston and Northeastern universities.

The investment will expand the data center capacity to support several thousand new servers at the 90,000-square-foot facility, while employing local electrical and mechanical contractors. The expansion is being driven by the planned and steady growth in high-performance computing, which nearly every branch of science and engineering relies on today.

James Cuff, executive director of MIT Office of Research Computing and Data, explained that scientists refer to the center when scientific problems are too big to fit on a regular computer, or the timeframe is too short, and it is necessary to accelerate the time to deliver a scientific result.

“There are computational problems that outstrip the capability of even a small handful of computers, and what the (high-performance center) provides is the facilities, infrastructure, and professional services to be able to stand up hundreds of thousands of processes,” Cuff said. “Scientists from the universities can connect to the resources at the (center), and they can run numerous tasks simultaneously, which reduces the time to deliver your scientific output.”

Cuff said that the universities’ research computing offices are responsible for effectively ensuring that the machines are ordered, installed, configured, and connected to the appropriate university networks. It allows scientists to use the resources for their respective research and interact with the center on their campuses and anywhere in the world.

“There are people with scientific backgrounds who live and work in the center who can speak for the machines to make sure they are available,” said Cuff. “Scientists do not need to install their own machines; they do not need to configure or maintain operating systems. Those are all managed by these individual research computing offices.”

Cuff said that the high-performance and the university research computing offices facilitate the process and aim to strengthen a collaborative science network, build a community throughout the United States and worldwide, and ease ways for scientists to be able to consume computation without further challenges.

“It is more than the facility that enables great sharing,” said Cuff. “If a faculty member at UMass Amherst, for example, wants to work with a researcher at MIT, we provide all the required networking to be able to transfer data quickly. The center allows the scientists to log in to different university resources and analyze data.”

Although scientists do work remotely, Cuff said the center in Holyoke represents a networking place where ideas can evolve.

“This is not a place for only ‘clicking.’ It is a unique and special facility where the amazing brain trust and sharing are happening,” said Cuff. “We are holding national meetings where scientists gather, share their ideas, and collaborate on science.”

John Goodhue, executive director of the computing center, said the facility was originally built with enough room for expansion. He said a substantial fraction of the $5 million investment is going toward adding power distribution, chilled water distribution for cooling, and equipment racks that can hold computers. Another major portion of the investment will be directed to power panels and wiring necessary to take power from the utility and adjust it to the computers.

The infrastructure is almost entirely powered by nonfossil-fuel energy sources, including approximately 67 megawatts of local hydroelectric and solar generation operated by Holyoke Gas and Electric. Goodhue said the universities’ incentive in 2008 was to reduce their carbon footprint and it sparked the interest to find an appropriate location where the energy was as green as possible.

“The universities learned that the city of Holyoke was operating its own hydroelectric facility that was originally built to power the textile mills,” Goodhue said. “That dam is generating more hydropower than we need for a thorough data center. It gives us room for growth.”

Goodhue said that the computer center is a separate, nonprofit entity funded by the five universities. More than a decade ago, they realized that research computing was becoming fundamental to every branch of research, from astrophysics to the humanities. Researchers use computing power to investigate how stars form, to improve medical imaging, to study ecocystem dynamics in New England coastal waters and to model the global risks of accelerating climate change, among other projects.

“They needed a way to systematically support the equipment that faculty and increasingly central IT were acquiring,” said Goodhue. “The universities invested in the facility’s construction and are currently investing in its ongoing expansions.”

Nino Mtchedlishvili writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.
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