Collaboration eyes computing boost for New England

Rooted at MIT, effort brings together state, industry, academia


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What began earlier this decade as an effort to better coordinate information technology at MIT has blossomed into a major drive between the Institute, the state of Massachusetts and several key players in industry and academia to design and build an environmentally friendly high-performance computing center in western Massachusetts, one capable of boosting the state's innovation economy.

The collaboration, formally announced Thursday at an event in Holyoke, Mass., aims to establish Massachusetts as a leader in the application and development of the next generation of computing technologies, ones that could lead to new ways of treating cancer and efficiently managing a "smart" electricity grid.

MIT President Susan Hockfield joined Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, University of Massachusetts President Jack M. Wilson and Boston University President Robert Brown on Thursday in Holyoke to sign a letter of intent to develop a plan for the Holyoke High-Performance Computing Center (HPCC) with industry executives from Accenture, EMC and Cisco.

"Many of today's most important technical challenges will yield only to the power of high-performance computing, from modeling climate change to managing a massively complex 'smart grid' and developing novel materials for 21st century technologies, from biomedicine to batteries," said Hockfield. "At MIT, we're committed to help drive the effort to deliver state-of-the-art computing performance to universities and companies across the region, through aggressive development of the Holyoke HPCC. Built to capitalize on local sources of green power, it will provide new opportunities for partnerships among private industry, government and the academy, and foster the Commonwealth's innovation-based economy."

"The potential for breakthrough technologies and research is enormous, and both the center and this collaboration will undoubtedly serve to lift up the city of Holyoke and regional economies throughout Western Massachusetts," said Gov. Patrick.

'Ping, power and pipe'

A high-performance computing center can house a wide range of computing resources, from massive clusters of commodity computers to specialized supercomputers, and associated data storage. These computers are connected to each other and to users via high-speed networks capable of transmitting information at rates of billions of bits per second.

Three of the key ingredients for an HPCC are "ping, power and pipe" - high-speed network, electrical power and cooling infrastructure. Holyoke's location on the banks of the Connecticut River offers access to low-cost hydroelectric power, while the river and the city's many canals offer potential cooling resources. Existing fiber optic/network connections readily allow access to major research universities around the state.

"That this high-performance computing center would be conspicuously green, relying on wind and hydro power to meet its considerable energy needs, adds luster to what is a truly exciting project," said UMass's Wilson.

The agreement continues a collaboration first established at a meeting convened in October between university leaders at MIT and UMass, industry executives from EMC and Cisco, and the Commonwealth, all of whom have worked collectively in support of a center and research agenda that would have multiple functions and benefits to the state's innovation economy, workforce, academic and research community, and support the Commonwealth's overall competitive edge.

Years in the making

The announcement culminates work begun at MIT more than four years ago by the Computer Space Task Force, a group of administrators and faculty members that was chaired by Patrick Dreher, formerly of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. That group, tasked with weighing options on where to locate MIT's computer data centers, eventually gave way to a new committee, the MIT HPCC Concept Project Team. The new group, led by Taeminn Song of IS&T, included Ronald Adams of Facilities, William Colehower of Facilities, John Costanza of CSAIL, John Dunbar of the Office of the Provost, Constantinos Evangelinos of EAPS, Christopher Hill of EAPS, Michael Kearns of Facilities, Jeremy Kepner of Lincoln Laboratory, Allison Parisi of Finance, Laxmi Rao of IS&T, Mark Riedesel of Sloan, Brian Shannon of IS&T and George Stephans of LNS.

"We would not be embarking on this exciting journey today had it not been for the dedicated work of the MIT community members who spent considerable time and effort studying this problem, defining the needs and parameters of the HPCC, and ultimately identifying Holyoke as an optimal place to locate it," said Vice President for Research Claude Canizares. Associate Provost and Professor of Electrical Engineering Martin Schmidt, and CSAIL Director Victor Zue, the Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, have also been actively engaged.

Canizares sponsored the work of the team along with Vice President for Information Services & Technology Jerry Grochow, Lincoln Laboratory CIO Joseph Flynn, Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Lorna Gibson and the deans of the School of Science and the School of Engineering. Additionally, the Information Technology Strategic Planning and Resources Coordinating Council (IT-SPARCC) provided high-level strategic guidance during the process, as did a faculty advisory board. The planning process will also engage the faculty Research Computing Task Force, convened last year by Canizares and Grochow and chaired by Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Biological Engineering Bruce Tidor.

Under the terms of the letter of intent, the signatories have committed to work collaboratively over the next 120 days to create an action plan with the ultimate goal of building and opening the new facility and forming the statewide research agenda. The plan will be assisted in part by John Adams Innovation Institute and the local collaboration of Holyoke Mayor Sullivan and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, and will seek to identify the operational, capital, environmental, workforce and academic elements of the project, along with a project timetable, which will be completed in several phases. Other major institutions and private companies are expected to join in the collaborative effort.


Topics: Computer science and technology, Electrical engineering and electronics, Energy, Technology and society

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