Anyone up for some Checkers? Support and Super-Computing at the U of A | By Cathryn Beck

Black and white;


That’s it—keep it nice and clean-cut with Occam’s Razor.

Speaking from the perspective of a science-student-gone-rogue (I switched to the arts), I find it rather titillating when the opportunity arises to sprinkle a healthy dose of emotional vibrancy on a topic usually considered so—well—black and white.

By now, the Higgs boson is old news, and I won’t pretend to be able to explain it to you—Thats been done, too.  What may be new to you, however, is just this:

Envision, for a moment, walking through a set of locked doors.  Not many people pass through this way.  Instantly, a chill sweeps up your body as a droning hum invades your eardrums.  Your senses slowly settle, and your eyes begin to see.

You pass beneath a rainbow, perfectly arched and made of wires, bundled tightly.  Reaching out, you can trace the unraveling of the colourful arch, each cord swooping down, fanning out, and finding itself lodged neatly next to its neighbor.  You find yourself lost among the rows of black walls and square tiles, all the while feeling as if you are being watched.  Out of your periphery: movement.  You see hundreds of pairs of eerie little eyes—blue and green—staring at you.  Some gaze persistently.  One gives a coy wink.

Have you found God? a voice seems to nag.

No—not a nag.  A challenge.

The sheer amount of power surrounding you suddenly seems suffocating—the hissing of the air in the surrounding Data Centre only mocking your loss for words.  Tucked away, behind-the-scenes in the General Services Building on campus, the story of these machines is not widely known.  Checkers sits just over there, no worse for the wear after contributing almost five million CPU hours to the search for the God particle since June 2009.  This cluster allowed for the execution of over 5 million analysis jobs to be put towards this groundbreaking scientific effort.  In the middle of the room—standing almost belligerently—is Hungabee: the biggest shared memory machine in Canada, boasting 2048 cores and 16 terabytes of RAM.  He has only a handful of siblings in the world who can match his power.

These machines, leveraged by Canadian researchers, are mediated by IT support teams like those within AICT (Academic Information and Communication Technology), the central IT group on campus.  It is in this room of wire-rainbows and persistent hissing that these IT technicians work day-and-night to maintain our machinery—to ward off the rising temperatures as these supercomputers chug away—all so that research in Canada can continue uninterrupted.  I’ve had the privilege of working with these people.  They are fun, they are caring, and they are devoted—They have to be, to work through their nights and weekends to provide the support that this university needs to achieve excellence.

Here, we see in colour.  Here, computational power and people power collide to yield brilliant results for our world.  The University of Alberta, as a community, ought to be brimming with excitement, swelling with ideas, reeling with pride for our collective discovery, and applauding our technicians for working around-the-clock.

Located on our very own campus is the power to find the God particle.

… Anyone up for some Checkers?


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