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Purdue supercomputer unboxed and built by lunchtime

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Staff members at Purdue University had hoped to build the Big Ten’s largest campus supercomputer in just a day on Monday, May 5.

But it didn’t take that long — they were done by lunch.

Staff at Purdue assemble \"Steele\", the Big Ten\'s largest supercomputer
Purdue computer technicians put the finishing touches on Steele, a new supercomputer that is among the largest in the world. Staff members at the university were challenged to build the supercomputer in a day, but finished the job by lunchtime. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

“The assembly was finished much faster than we expected, and by noon we were doing science,” says Gerry McCartney, vice president for information technology and chief information officer. “The staff was enthusiastic, the weather was great, and there were no problems installing the hardware or software. There is no cloud to accompany this silver lining.”

By 1 p.m. more than 500 of the 812 nodes that make up the supercomputer were already running 1,400 research jobs from across campus.

The supercomputer, which is named “Steele” for John Steele, former staff and faculty member, is made up of 812 Dell servers and is capable of performing 60 trillion operations per second. The supercomputer would rank in the top 40 of the current ranking of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, and is the largest supercomputer on a Big Ten campus that is not a part of a national center.

A time-lapse video of the supercomputer construction is available via YouTube: Supercomputer assembly at Purdue University

The first shift of workers was scheduled to begin unpacking boxes at 7 a.m., but many employees arrived at 6 a.m., eager to begin working. By 11 a.m. the supercomputer was essentially complete except for a few nodes that were intentionally held back to be installed at the noon dedication.

“We discovered that a build like this leverages the commodity nature of cluster computing, by using standard computing parts,” McCartney said. “By using commodity computer servers to build our supercomputer, we didn’t have to fly in engineers or hire specialized technicians. We were able to do it with our own IT staff in about four hours.”

Indiana University, Purdue’s rival on the athletic fields, surprised the Purdue IT staff by sending a crew of technicians to help build the machine.

Matt Link, director of research technology systems at IU, says he was pleased to be a part of the event.

“We often collaborate with people from Purdue on research proposals by videoconferencing, but we don’t routinely get the opportunity to work together in person,” Link said. “Our meeting today was enjoyable and will serve to strengthen future collaborations between IU and Purdue.”

The supercomputer was funded by Purdue faculty members who contributed research funds instead of purchasing equipment for their own laboratories.

Ashlie Martini, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and one of the faculty who helped fund the project, will use the computer’s power to study friction at the molecular level. She watched the technicians install the nodes in the data center.

“The great thing about this approach is that almost everything was done for us,” Martini said. “This was very efficient. I have nothing but good things to say about today.”

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