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'Fast-talking' clusters

Researchers at Ames Laboratory's Scalable Computing Lab have extended their investigation into communication technology for cluster computers thanks to a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrument grant awarded to Iowa State University's Center for Physical and Computational Mathematics. The $300,000 MRI grant includes $190,000 from NSF and more than $100,000 in matching funds from ISU's Institute for Physical Research and Technology, Iowa State University and the ISU departments of physics and chemistry.

Scalable Computing Lab researchers are using the MRI funds to improve interconnect solutions for cluster computers, personal computer or workstation networks that can operate at speeds comparable to today's commercial parallel computers, but for a fraction of the cost. Making message-passing between computers in a cluster faster and more efficient is the primary goal of the MRI-supported research effort.

The SCL scientists believe cluster computers could be very appealing to the larger scientific and academic communities. "A university department or a research group can't afford to buy a supercomputer, but they can afford to put a good cluster together," says Mark Gordon, director of Ames Lab's Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences Program and head of the SCL.

Gordon emphasizes that solutions to grand-challenge problems, such as the design of new materials and catalysts, the development of viable methods for environmental remediation, and the search for the origin of life will depend on state-of-the-art computational hardware and applications software to take advantage of modern computers. "The high-performance computing environment of the future will undoubtedly include scalable cluster computing," he says. (Scalable means the ability to increase, or "scale up," computer processing power to run the same job in less time.)

"In the case of clusters, we want to figure out how to best manage the hardware and get computers talking to each other with a minimum amount of time used in communicating and a maximum amount of time in actually doing the calculations," Gordon adds. "That's what the MRI grant is all about."

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