Princeton’s New Computing Research Center Builds Research Capacity

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By Joan Bennett

After several years of planning and more than a year of construction, Princeton University’s High-Performance Computing Research Center opened its doors this week. Situated on Princeton’s Forrestal campus, the 47,000-square-foot building is the new home to research computers that are capable of generating models of galaxy formation, tracking the motion of a single molecule and simulating the seismic forces of an earthquake, among other highly technical tasks.

The facility, which will come fully online when all systems are operational in January, is the centerpiece of Princeton’s innovative plan to provide robust computing resources to all faculty members and researchers. About 70 per cent of the computing power at the new center is to be dedicated to high-performance research computing, while the other 30 per cent runs the email, databases and other computing services needed to support campus. The computers were moved from computing facilities at 87 Prospect Ave., the New South Building, and Lewis Library on the University’s main campus.

The high-performance research computers are part of Princeton’s existing TIGRESS High-Performance Computing Center and Visualization Laboratory in the Lewis Library. TIGRESS is short for Terascale Infrastructure for Groundbreaking Research in Science and Engineering. While the five computers that make up TIGRESS have been moved to the new building, the TIGRESS staff, educational resources, and the visualization laboratory will remain in the Lewis Library on the main campus.

Two of the five computers are new additions, having been purchased to replace aging models. The two are Hecate, which has replaced an older machine with the same name, and Orbital, which replaces a five-year-old high-performance cluster known as Woodhen. The new Hecate has 1,500 processors, providing roughly 1,000 times the performance of the average desktop, and 12 terabytes of memory, which allows it to analyze unprecedentedly large datasets.

In January 2012, when all the systems are installed and running, Princeton’s computing center will provide computing speed of about 110 teraflops, or 10 percent of the capability — as measured in “FLOPS,” or floating point operations per second — of a national supercomputing center.