Supercomputing in the Neighborhood

Supercomputing in the Neighborhood

Supercomputers are generally thought to exist exclusively for advanced scientific, medical and engineering research and uses. However, in Winston-Salem, N.C., a coalition of universities, businesses and local government agencies is looking to establish a supercomputer center not only benefiting researchers but also providing a boost to education and economic development in the city located in North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region.
Such a supercomputing center would grant local businesses, public schools, universities and governments access to advanced computing power, according to its proponents.
“Providing opportunities for educators, researchers, businesses and government agencies to learn more about emerging technologies may provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace for these businesses and for students to experience these technologies,” says Dr. Joyce Williams-Green, associate provost for information resources at historically Black Winston-Salem State University. 
Winston-Salem State is one of the key players in a coalition that also includes Wake Forest University. Last month, WSSU officials, in conjunction with a local pharmaceutical firm, convened a supercomputing planning conference that drew more than 100 participants to the university’s campus. Though WSSU researchers would greatly benefit from the access to a local supercomputer, WSSU officials are positioning the school to facilitate supercomputer access and training programs primarily for the academic teaching community in the Winston-Salem area.
Experts say they are impressed by the level of cooperation they have seen among the city’s leading institutions, as well as by the computing and networking infrastructure already in place. The goal now is to raise $20,000 to $30,000 to pay for development of a white paper and a business plan for the multimillion-dollar supercomputer center, according to officials.
“I’m impressed that this community is taking on this project,” says Dr. Roscoe Giles, a Boston University professor and prominent supercomputing advocate. “This effort is quite unique.”
A supercomputer center in or around Winston-Salem would complement the state’s only supercomputer, which is based in Research Triangle Park near Raleigh and Durham, N.C. Established in 1989, the North Carolina Supercomputing Center links up to educational institutions and businesses around the state to perform high-level research. The supercomputer center is also at the heart of the state’s efforts to develop cluster computing capacity among the state’s research institutions. The state sees cluster computing, which involves  stringing together many small computers to create the capacity of a supercomputer, as a viable strategy and resource.
“The state’s supercomputer center in Research Triangle Park has helped attract numerous small to medium-sized high technology businesses to that area,” says Dr. Jeff Schmitt, a co-chairman of the recent supercomputing conference and an executive with Targacept Inc., a pharmaceutical company in Winston-Salem.
Officials in Winston-Salem have been able to discuss a local supercomputing initiative largely because of a high-speed, fiber optic computing network has been under development in the city over the past few years. The network, known as WinstonNet, is allowing Winston-Salem institutions to gain fast connectivity to the North Carolina Supercomputer Center in Research Triangle Park and to the state’s high-speed computing networks.
“A number of players have seen the value of a shared networking environment” because of WinstonNet, says Eric Harmon, director of computing and client services at WSSU.
WinstonNet grew out of efforts by Wake Forest University to connect its campuses with a fiber optic network. While laying fiber optic lines across the city a few years ago, Wake Forest officials decided they could allocate some of the network’s capacity to nonprofits, other colleges and universities, and the local government. The school’s generosity led to the establishment of WinstonNet, which could eventually pave the way for establishment of the supercomputer center.
 “We see that large scale, high-speed computing is going to be very important for basic undergraduate science education in the future,” says Jay Dominick, the chief information officer at Wake Forest University. 
Giles, who will be the first African American chairman of the largest national supercomputing conference, to be held later this year in Baltimore, says it’s heartening to see a historically Black school participating in a local supercomputing venture. Other historically Black schools working in the arena of supercomputing include Clark Atlanta University and Jackson State University, according to Giles. 
“Winston-Salem State has top leaders who have a broad vision for making our community better,” Wake Forest University’s Dominick says. 



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