|From left, Henk
Meij, applications technology specialist; Francis Starr, assistant professor
of physics; and James Taft, assistant director of technology support
services, look over the newly-installed 10-terabyte computer cluster at
Information Technology Services.
New Computer Cluster Will Improve Research Campus-Wide
It takes 10, 250-volt plugs to power up. It takes 9,000 BTUs to keep it
cool. It can communicate 14 times faster than high-speed internet, and it
has the potential to store more than 2.5 million MP3s.
But most important, this state-of-the-art high-performance computer
cluster will offer both education and research opportunities for the
university on a level which has never before been available. The cluster was
installed this month, and will be connected to the entire Wesleyan network.
“This is going to change the way Wesleyan conducts research,” explains
Ganesan Ravishanker, associate vice president for Information Technology
Services. “This powerful computing cluster will offer advanced hardware and
software resources for teaching strategies and research not specific to any
one department or discipline.”
The high-performance cluster is made up of 288 central processing units from
Dell, Inc. that work together as one machine. The unit has two functions –
it can either split one computational task across several different
computers for a faster result, or it can process dozens of tasks at one
Together, these units offer 10 terabytes of storage, equivalent to 10,000
gigabytes. A typical desktop computer has 150 gigabytes of disk space.
“It takes three to four terabytes to store all the information from the
entire campus and this unit alone has 10,” explains Henk Meij, applications
technology specialist, who is overseeing the cluster’s operation.
cluster was funded by a $190,000 National Science Foundation’s Major
Research Instrumentation Program grant, awarded in July 2006. The grant
proposal was written by Francis Starr, assistant professor of physics; David
Beveridge, the University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics,
professor of chemistry; and Katherine Johnston, formerly an assistant
professor of astronomy. Each is involved in computationally-intensive
In the past five years, four Wesleyan faculty set-up their own clusters. Of
these, one is defunct, one is obsolete, and two are saturated and will soon
be out of date. Starr, who is currently conducting research through this
older, 80-unit cluster, will use the new cluster to benefit his own research
on DNA-based nanomaterials and supercooled liquids. Since his work requires
computer simulations that focus on molecular dynamics, the new cluster will
drastically increase his ability for scientific computation.
“Now I will be able to get 288 answers in the time it would take to get
one,” Starr explains, while rotating a visualization of the molecular
structure of water on his Mac. “With the new hardware, I’ll be able to
explore the assembly of new molecular structures on a much larger scale,
helping the development of nanomaterials with customized properties.”
And since the unit will be maintained by ITS, Starr looks forward to
spending less time maintaining his current cluster and more time doing
research and spending time with students.
The cluster is a central resource so anyone can connect to it from their
office or even home. Several Wesleyan faculty in the Natural Sciences and
Mathematics have taken interest in the new computing unit, however it is not
exclusive to NSM.
Rex Pratt, the Beach Professor of Chemistry, can use the cluster to make
models of small molecules that bind to enzymes. Eric Aaron, assistant
professor of computer science, can further his research of tumor development
and treatment, using massively computation-intensive geometric computation
simulations. Mark Flory, assistant professor of molecular biology and
biochemistry, carries out comparative searches of proteomic data with
corresponding sequence databases. Cluster facilities will enable him to
greatly expand his studies from small samples analyzed on a single
Several other faculty researchers will immediately benefit as well.
In addition to faculty use, undergraduate and graduate students will have
opportunities to conduct research with these machines. There are already
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
“Now, students are limited to the computers at their labs,” Starr explains.
“We need to teach students how to get access to the cluster and take
advantage of what it can offer. There is no end in sight for what we can
The impacts of the new cluster can be seen at :
By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection