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CMU's Supercomputer Gets a Boost

When computer science students return to Carnegie Mellon University this fall, many will be able to get their hands on a parallel computing system that is roughly 500 times faster than the best laptop computer on campus.

CMU was recently shipped 448 “blades” that were being decommissioned by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. As the federal facility upgrades its supercomputing system it usually sends the stripped down computers or “blades” to research facilities like CMU to allow students to experiment.

CMU professor Garth Gibson says the future of computing involves running a program on several computer processors at the same time which is known as running in parallel. 

“The way that you can improve the quality of education and research is to make sure that the researchers and students have access to equipment, which is increasing in scale,” said Gibson.

Last semester students were able to run experiments on just 64 parallel processors. If they needed more power they would have to borrow time from a system owned by the federal government or rent time from a commercial endeavor like Amazon.

“But we couldn’t have repeatability, we could not modify the operating system,” Gibson said.

With the new system, dubbed “Narwhal,” students will be able to run their experiments over and over, modifying variables as they go. 

“We give the students the ability to figure out what went wrong and they get their hands on that gear and that I think is the exciting part,” Gibson said. 

The new equipment comes with a value of approximately $500,000, and while Narwhal will place CMU near the top of its peers when it comes to systems research, the new facility with its 448 processors is still far smaller that the 150,000 blades installed at the Los Alamos lab.

Gibson says most of us use parallel computing nearly every day but don’t realize it. For example, Google uses hundreds of processors on your behalf every time you hit the search button. 

The blades have all been shipped to CMU and Gibson says he and his students are in the process of installing them. He expects the blades will stay in use until the next generation of processors comes their way.