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Super computer grows at U of A
By Joel Brown
The University of Alberta has dramatically heightened the capabilities of research in Canada by introducing, what they claim to be, the largest academic computer in the world.
The Silicon Graphics Origin 2400 performs extremely complex computations with the help of 112 processors and 28 gigabytes of RAM, said Jonathan Schaeffer, a professor of computer science at U of A.
Schaeffer said the existence of the supercomputer was vital to researchers at the university and across the country. "All of a sudden, our researchers are competitive with the rest of the world," he said.
Schaeffer noted before the computer's Jan. 1, 2000 inception date, Canada failed to own a system capable of making the top 500 list of supercomputers worldwide. The United States presently has 100 on this same list, he added.
"Researchers are at a huge disadvantage compared to their peers in Japan and the U.S.," he said. "Comparing it to an Indy car race if you have a car and I have a bike the race becomes irrelevant. Now we have a chance to be competitive with leading edge technology."
U of A will use the machine for multiple reasons, including DNA analysis, understanding the patterns of the Northern Lights, telecommunications and many other calculations which would be impossible to perform with a personal computer, Schaeffer said.
He identified nanotechnology, the next generation of computers, as an area impossible to develop without the presence of supercomputers. "With this computer we are able to simulate the minute components contained in [nanotechnology] devices," he explained.
Plans to expand the computer involve the creation of a virtual cave which Schaeffer compared to a holodeck on the Star Trek television series. "This will be a magnet for the university in terms of attracting top graduate students, professors and researchers," Schaeffer said.
Reza Sadri, a scientific computer specialist with Information Technology Services at Western, said with their substantial speed, memory and data transfer capacities, supercomputers are capable of performing programs which are very important for solving scientific engineering problems accurately.
He added although it is not as fast as U of A's device, Western has its own supercomputer which runs 140 times faster than a typical personal computer. Introduced in 1996, it was upgraded this fall, becoming six times faster than the original version.
"The drawback is the cost," Sadri explained.
Physics professor at the University of Toronto, Pekka Sinervo, said U of T uses their supercomputer to perform tasks such as the study of atomic and molecular systems along with the study of the relationship between light and matter. "These tasks would be impossible without some special device."