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The More, the Better

A system upgrade gives the University of Kentucky a leg up on supercomputing, grid computing and resource sharing.

Photo by Ryan Kurtz

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CUSTOMER: University of Kentucky
HEADQUARTERS: Lexington, Ky.
BUSINESS: Higher education
HARDWARE: An IBM System Cluster 1350, which includes eight POWER5+ p575 servers and an IBM BladeCenter complex with 340 IBM HS21 blades
CHALLENGE: Finding a new supercomputing infrastructure that fits the school's budget and space requirements
SOLUTION: Working with IBM to deploy the IBM System Cluster 1350 and increasing its computing power by a factor of 10


A few years ago, I took part in the SETI@home project. In exchange for possible glory - finding an intelligently designed signal coming from somewhere in the vastness in space - I installed an application on my computer that crunched numbers for the organization.

It was a great screen saver, but I never achieved that glory I was after (and as far as I know, nobody else has either). Nonetheless, it was an interesting introduction to the world of shared computing. And it was a boon to SETI@home, which had built an ad-hoc supercomputing, grid-type computing environment, tapping into unused processor cycles on home computers.

Although not a supercomputer or even a grid-computing environment as currently defined, SETI@home remains an exciting example of what can be done with massive amounts of computing power spread out across multiple machines. That's why more organizations are looking into building their own supercomputers and dabbling in grid computing.

The University of Kentucky is one such organization. Although it's been a proponent of supercomputing and grid computing for years, it recently bolstered its standing by introducing a slew of IBM* System p* and BladeCenter* servers to create a massively powerful beast capable of a theoretical peak performance of 16 teraflops. And even though John Connolly, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Computational Sciences, expects that number to be closer to 11 teraflops when it comes to benchmarking for the TOP500 Supercomputer Sites, the school is, as he puts it, still on "the leading edge" when it comes to supercomputing.

The Two-Year Plan
Based in Lexington, Ky., the school's roots date back to 1865, when John Bowman, with the financial assistance of the federal Morrill Land-Grant College Act and private donations, established it as the Agricultural and Mechanical College. The school took on its current name in 1916, and has since become one of the most respected universities in the nation, with a student enrollment of more than 26,000 as of fall 2005 and more than 200 majors and degree programs in 16 academic or professional colleges, including agriculture, arts and sciences, business and economics, dentistry, engineering, health sciences, pharmacy and social work.

As expected, the school has back-office systems, some of which include System p platforms, supporting its students, faculty and staff. The real story is the university's foray into supercomputing and grid participation. Notably, this began prior to the school's adoption of the System p and BladeCenter platforms. The school had been using supercomputing to support advanced sciences for years, including when it had deployed an HP-based system. "We had two machines. One was a single-memory machine and the other was a cluster," Connolly says.

Although its peak theoretical performance was only "within the 1 to 2 teraflop range," notes Connolly, this supercomputing environment placed the University of Kentucky within the top 30 of U.S. schools employing supercomputing. Nothing to sneeze at, but the university felt it could beef that up - and its placement among U.S. universities - by exploring other options. This would give its primary users, who work in fields such as astrophysics, particle physics, chemistry, some engineering and, says Connolly, "the biomedical area, particularly as related to pharmaceuticals and computer-aided drug design," more computing power.

Operating under a two-year system-refresh model, the school began researching possible replacements for its HP-powered supercomputer, with two key issues in mind: "Namely," notes Connolly, "can we run the code that's important to us? And second, does it meet our price-performance ratio?" The task to determine these issues fell to a committee of local technical experts and faculty, who looked at a number of factors to decide which solution would work best for them. "Last year, we had a number of representatives from different solution providers come in to give us presentations," Connolly recalls. "And then we had a request for proposal that went out last fall. When the proposals came back, we set up a committee to evaluate them."


Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at



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