Redefining Computing: How Supercomputers are Changing Research

Written by Varun Hukeri.

For the past sixteen years, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin has pioneered technological innovation and leadership, setting itself up as the gold standard among colleges and universities nationwide. That’s why it was fitting when, in 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a $30 million award to the University for TACC to acquire and deploy a new supercomputing system.

This supercomputer, known as Stampede 2, began construction in January 2017.

By April, it was already being utilized by top researchers across the country to study topics ranging from nanoparticles to earthquakes.

The system consisted of two phases. Phase 1 went into operation in the spring, and Phase 2 went into operation later in the summer. The system as a whole became fully operational and entered full production at the beginning of the fall academic semester.

Understanding why Stampede 2 is such a boon to the University and to researchers requires understanding what exactly makes a supercomputer “super.” The purpose of supercomputers is to compute things that an ordinary computer can not do, usually because of the scale or complexity of the operation. A supercomputer can compute problems related to large things, like black holes, or small things, like subatomic particles. It can collect enormous amounts of data and has immense storage capacity.

Stampede 2, which is not only ranked the twelfth most powerful computing system in the world but also the most powerful supercomputer at any U.S. university, is so advanced that it possesses as much computing power as 100,000 regular desktop computers.

In more technical terms, Stampede 2 has a peak performance of 18 petaflops, or 18 quadrillion mathematical operations per second.

A team of cybertechnology experts at TACC operates Stampede 2 in conjunction with Dell, Intel Corporation, and Seagate Technology, as well as several universities including Clemson University, Cornell University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Indiana University, and Ohio State University.

The core mission of Stampede 2 is to allow researchers to answer questions that cannot be addressed through theory or experimentation alone by providing high performance computing power capable of analyzing quadrillions of functions in an instant. More specifically, TACC lays out four key ways that Stampede 2 can help expand the diverse portfolio of computing resources for researchers: it allows for large-scale simulations, data macro-analytics, general computations, and web-based community platforming.

Currently, access to the Stampede 2 system is restricted to those who have passed a peer-review process, but in the future, the system could become more accessible to general researchers and even to undergraduate students participating in research.

This accessibility is not unprecedented. The supercomputing system at Indiana University, known as Karst, is available to anyone at the University and is already paving the way for new research in fields like physics and pharmaceuticals.

Since Stampede 2 is still a new system, it is currently not as accessible to the general UT student body, but given time, high performance computing will eventually become more and more integrated into UT’s cyberinfrastructure. Take the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) for example, which currently has its own servers that employ web streaming, multimedia, and data storage.

Stampede 2 and the power of supercomputing will inevitably become more accessible, and its servers will no doubt be utilized for a wide array of high performance research methods, including the storage and analysis of vast amounts of data. The system has enough storage space to encode every word of every constitution of every country in the world, plus every major date during World War II, and still have enough computing and storage space to track the passage of all electrical signals through the synapses of the human brain.

The proliferation of supercomputers at colleges and universities means that more students and researchers are going to have access to the most powerful computing systems in the world, leading to new innovation in computation, data storage, and a variety of other functions.

Stampede 2 is a testament to the innovation and leadership of UT.

As it continues to open new doors in its first year of operation, its success will be the foundation for researchers across UT and the country to fundamentally redefine the nature of research and advance the frontiers of academia.


Featured image by Texas Advanced Computing Center.

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