The University of São Paulo starts operation of a computer cluster for astronomy
February 15, 2012
By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – One of the largest and most powerful computer clusters dedicated solely to research in astronomy is expected to come online over the next few days at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Astronomy Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences’ Astronomy Department (IAG-USP).
Valued at over US$ 1 million, the equipment was acquired with funding from FAPESP’s Multiuser Equipment Program as part of a project involving IAG-USP and Unicsul’s Theoretical Astrophysics Nucleus (NAT).
Composed of three towers the size of home refrigerators that together weigh three tons, the group of computers has 2,300 processing cores. The system will increase the USP Astronomy Department’s processing power by a factor of 60. The previous cluster used by the institution had 40 cores.
“We aren’t aware of any other astronomy department in the world with this computing capacity. There are universities and consortiums between research institutions with much larger clusters, but the processing time is divided between a number of areas and isn’t totally dedicated to astronomy,” Alex Carciofi, the USP professor responsible for implementation of the project, told Agência FAPESP.
According to Carciofi, the cluster will make it possible to increase the level of physical realism and run a greater number of mathematical models (numerical simulations), which are used to study astronomical systems such as stars, galaxies and the interstellar medium.
When conducting simulations of nature, the greater the number of physical processes incorporated in the numerical models (making the models more realistic), the more demanding these models become in terms of computing power and the more processing time they require.
“With equipment this size, we can increase the scale of the problem we want to study and still work within a reasonable processing period. This way we can process more models and carry out our research within a practical time period,” explained Carciofi.
The equipment will also allow the researchers in the USP Astronomy Department to take part in research at the frontiers of knowledge in fields such as computational astrophysics.
As in other fields of science, the new field of computational astrophysics is the result of the fusion of two previously separate disciplines: astrophysics and computer science.
Among other factors, this merging of astrophysics and computer science is the result of the fact that modern astronomy instruments, such as robotic telescopes that operate automatically, generate very large volumes of data that need to be analyzed. “New techniques need to be developed to be able to get results from this large volume of data,” said Carciofi.
At first, the cluster will be used by 150 post-graduate students, professors and post-doctoral students at IAG, but the cluster will also be available for use by researchers from other scientific institutions.
The equipment will also attract scientists from other states and countries who require a high computer processing capacity to carry out their research.
“Researchers from abroad can choose to come to IAG to do a post-doctorate for example, just because the institution has a cluster like this one,” said Carciofi.
The supercomputer was developed by SGI and is based on a Blade Altix ICE 8400 platform with an AMD Opteron 6172 processor and 4.6 terabytes of memory.