New MSU super-computer on campus

MSU has added a functioning supercomputer, known as the Hyalite cluster, to its list of resources available to researchers on campus. Able to perform complex, simultaneous calculations through a system of computational cores, the cluster, consisting of 44 nodes for a total of 1,408 processing cores, is being used for computational research by 50 users from 11 different academic departments in five unique schools. While much smaller than clusters at larger institutions, the cluster may be largest in the state of Montana, according to Jerry Sheehan, chief information officer of the MSU Information Technology (IT) Center.

Located in the basement of AJM Johnson Hall, the cluster provides a powerful community resource for researchers at MSU. “Roughly speaking, about two years ago, we started as a university to have conversations about whether we needed to have a more generally accessible resource for people who don’t have the opportunity to bring in federal [grant] money,” Sheehan said, “The university decided it would be more interesting to build a community resource rather than the individual resources that we have had in research labs, and that was the genesis for what we are referring to as the high-performance computing cluster.”

The campus has a history of small clusters created for individual use. In order to create a community resource, Sheehan and the IT Center worked with the Office of the Provost and individual faculty members to pool money allocated to incoming faculty for equipment. This money, used for outfitting labs, obtaining equipment and hiring staff, was used to fund the Hyalite cluster. This allowed the department to meet the faculty’s individual needs and create a resource more generally available to other researchers with computational questions.

Faculty members who gave money to start the project are guaranteed a certain number of computing cores for their research. The rest of the academic community is able to access the available cores on a first-come, first-serve basis according to a queue.

The fall 2015 semester is the first academic semester in which the Hyalite cluster has been broadly available to the Montana State research community. The cluster was installed in January of last year; after initial testing of the system, a few users were allowed to use the cluster to further evaluate its performance. In the spring and summer, new users began using the cluster in addition to those in the testing group.

The Hyalite cluster can be upgraded further for more processing power. Computational power is increased by adding cores to a rack system, which, according to Sheehan, provides a high density of computation with a limited physical footprint. If the computational resources required by a user exceed that of the Hyalite cluster, Bozeman IT will assist researchers in gaining access to more powerful systems at other locations.

As work with the Hyalite cluster continues, the IT Center plans to use existing hardware and software like that used in Hyalite to create a new cluster available as a resource for students. The student cluster, currently nicknamed “the Champ cluster” until officially designated, will provide students with an opportunity to participate in data science competitions or even to test their own ideas in “sandbox” type setting.

“If you were a student, much like if you were a researcher, and you wanted to look at something, you would have to go through some training from us and then we would work to get you access to that so you could experiment with computation … we may find a data set generated by a researcher here at Montana State, move that over to the student facing cluster, and then train some students and allow them access, and see what sort of insight, using computational methods, they could see in terms of analysis or visualization,” Sheehan said.