PRObE computer center opens

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Technology: Researchers will have unprecedented access

By Tris DeRoma

According to high school student and PRObE Center volunteer Samuel Wang, this is kind of what a “supercomputer” is.


“Imagine a supercomputer as a bunch of personal computers hooked up with several miles of cable to a massive server that’s fueled by a large power source,” he said.

In other words, good luck in beating it at chess. Just like how the average computer used to take up several large rooms in the 1950s, those rooms are now reserved for the supercomputers, devices with so much memory and processing power behind them they are reserved for only the really big tasks, such as figuring out how to stop global warming, predicting the outcome of a world war and whatever else programmers may ask them to do.

However, these machines do have a couple of weaknesses.

Because of the way supercomputers are engineered, (miles of cable, made up of a lot of smaller computers, special cooling systems, etc.) they are sometimes very temperamental and can’t easily be made to switch tasks quickly like your personal computer can. Plus, once they are incorporated into a certain environment, these computers are usually relegated to doing whatever job it’s originally tasked with for rest of its working life.

With all that computing and processing power, what’s the fun in not being able to try different things or experimenting a little?

Enter the “Parallel Reconfigurable Observational Environment Center, or “PRObE Center” for short.

Located in Los Alamos’ Research Park, the center features a 1,024 cluster of computers that qualified researchers can use to run experiments as well as troubleshoot problems. According to the “New Mexico Consortium,” the partnerships that created the PRObE Center, the facility is the first of its kind in the world, where researchers will have unfettered access to do whatever they want with it, including run new programs, create experiments designed to destroy or improve it, work out software issues or take a closer look operating systems issues.  

“As supercomputers get larger and more complex, providing reliable and efficient system level software becomes a daunting task; without a place to test new concepts, advancement in high performance computing will be delayed,” the consortium said in a press release.

The consortium is actually a partnership made up of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Technical Institute, the University of Utah and Carnegie Mellon University.

Though the center has been open for about a year, officials recently hosted a ribbon cutting to celebrate the supercomputer’s official debut. On hand for the event was U.S. Congressman Ben Ray Luján and National Science Foundation Division Director Keith Marzullo, who welcomed the supercomputer also known as “Kodiak,” into the world.

Also speaking at the ceremony were officials from Los Alamos National Laboratory, including LANL Deputy Division Director for High Performance Computing Gary Grider and LANL Director Charlie McMillan.

The computers that make up the PRObE Center’s supercomputer were donated by LANL.

McMillan highlighted the fact that the PRObE Center will help the U.S. maintain its technological edge in a global economy through the hands-on experience that researchers will gain working with the supercomputer.

“One of the beauties of the PRObE Center is that it’s providing an opportunity to gain knowledge,” he said.
McMillan also credited the consortium itself for helping to create the center and the unique opportunity it will provide researchers.

“These are the kinds of projects that I believe none of our organizations can do by ourselves, but together can really do something to move our nation forward,” McMillan said.

He also viewed the PRObE Center as tool to educate the next generation of computer scientists.

Throughout the center’s construction that began with a $10 million grant to the consortium in 2010, quite a number of Los Alamos High School students, including Wang, had a chance to work on different aspects of the project, such as configuring the cables and working on the computers themselves.

Another student that helped out was Ariel Koh, a junior at LAHS who hopes one day to be a computer engineer. According to Koh, it was a pretty interesting experience. Not only did they get to wire up the computers, they got to look inside them and see how they worked as well.

“We got to take apart a lot of the nodes and see the hard drives, the LAN (local area network) and the processors,” Koh said. “It was something to learn exactly what it takes to get one of these computers up and running.”

The Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce’s Kevin Holsapple added, “A primary asset that Los Alamos possesses as a community is scientific and technology talent, and the proven ability to team up the talent and know-how that we have here with other very talented people and institutions throughout the country and the world in order to solve important problems.

“The PRObE Center initiative will take great advantage of what Los Alamos has to offer in addressing an important problem in the world of supercomputing.  

“I thank and commend the National Science Foundation for their vision in being out in front on this by supporting NMC, Carnegie Mellon, and the other partners in this initiative.”