“Acquisition of Cluster Computing Facilities for Research and Education at Wesleyan University”
This proposal describes a request for support from the NSF Major Research Instrumentation Program for establishing a state of the art 128-CPU cluster computing facility for research and educational purposes in the sciences at Wesleyan University. There are established extramurally-funded research programs at Wesleyan in theoretical astrophysics, liquid state chemical physics, nanotechnology, quantum chemistry, molecular biophysics, and the emerging field of neuroinformatics and structural bioinformatics, all of which depend on high-end computing to be competitive. Courses that involve computers are offered in each of these areas. However, there is presently no university based computer facility available for intensive research computing and corresponding initiatives in undergraduate and graduate education. An extensive network of computer workstations and personal computing facilities is now in place at Wesleyan, but those involved in large-scale research computing projects have needed to maintain and upgrade their computing clusters individually. There have been three such clusters set up over the last five years. One of these is defunct, one is obsolete, and the active one – situated in the physics department – is currently saturated and will soon be out of date. Two new hires have requested PC Clusters as part of their start-up requests, and we anticipate others to follow. These additional requests, plus the problems with systems management and obsolescence in the previous clusters have led us to conclude that building and maintaining a science division-wide cluster computer would be a more efficient use of both Wesleyan and individual faculty time and funds.
Working with a University Vice president and Information Technology Services (ITS), the PI’s have formulated a plan to establish and maintain a dynamic state-of-the-art PC cluster computing facility. This purpose of this proposal is to obtain funding for a new 128-CPU cluster. The equipment will be situated in ITS space, maintained by a designated ITS systems manager and made available for research and instructional needs over our current network, WESNET. A faculty Computer Advisory Committee will provide academic oversight, manage allocation requests, and coordinate with ITS. In support of this proposal, the university has also agreed to maintain this cluster at state-of-the-art with a systematic program of upgrades at a rate that will totally replace the hardware on subsequent 3-4 year time frames. Thus the problems of system management and obsolescence are mitigated, and requests for clusters from new faculty will be dealt with by providing an appropriate addition and allocation of CPU access and time on the shared facility.
Realistically, the proposed cluster will not meet 100% of anticipated needs, and it is expected that the highest-end users will make appropriate use of the proposed facility, but also continue to request allocations on national supercomputers for projects that will outstrip local capabilities. Hence the intellectual merit of the proposed computing facilities is that they will provide a thoughtful solution to the problem of providing a reliable scientific computing resource at a small university based on a coherent, university-wide strategic plan. The broader impact of the facility will be on both the faculty research and student education.
Specifically, since faculty will no longer be burdened with maintaining computational resources, more attention can be given to the actual research activities. The cluster will also impact the ongoing instruction in the university, serving as a learning tool to develop students’ scientific computing skills, both in existing courses and assisting faculty with research. Such training is invaluable to prepare students for the expanding field of information technology. Overall, this revision in Wesleyan’s institutional strategy towards high-level computing fits naturally within the university’s mission of achieving excellence in undergraduate education while supporting an active research faculty.
Providing a central facility for high-level computations represents a dramatic shift in the approach that Wesleyan University has taken to supporting science faculty research programs. Currently, computational resources are distributed in an ad-hoc fashion across the campus, with what computing resources we have being maintained by individual faculty with a particular interest in computational work. The impacts of the proposed general purpose cluster computing on performing research are as follows:
Clearly, a centralized cluster computer will introduce a new era to the quality and inclusiveness of computationally intensive research at Wesleyan, affecting both faculty programs and the undergraduate and graduate students involve in those programs. Overall, this revision in Wesleyan’s institutional strategy towards information technology fits naturally within the university’s mission of achieving excellence in undergraduate education via the effective integration of teaching and scholarship.