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MUGrid harnesses massive computer power

It would take a single computer more than 400 days to complete one of the complex simulations Dr. Dan Sem, associate professor of chemistry, needs for his drug discovery research. But thanks to Marquette’s new supercomputer, he can get the results he needs in three to five days

“It’s an important new tool in Marquette’s growing drug discovery toolbox,” says Sem, who is working on projects related to diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, schizophrenia and tuberculosis. “This is science with social impact, now progressing an order of magnitude faster with the help of the MUGrid.”

And soon Marquette will be able to provide that super-accelerated power to researchers throughout the region. With a $560,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Marquette installed a computer “cluster” that has the capacity of more than 1,000 desktop computers. It also connected more than 550 individual computers across campus, creating the first high-performance, campuswide computing network in southeast Wisconsin. This network, or grid, will benefit multiple researchers at Marquette and other academic institutions.

“When you link up several computers, you can process hundreds or thousands of instructions simultaneously, allowing you to get much more work done in a single instant,” explains Dr. Craig Struble, the associate professor of computer science who is leading the project.

The MUGrid is a joint effort of Marquette’s IT Services and the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science. The MUGrid harnesses the power of campus computers when they’re not otherwise in use. For example, lab computers aren’t used around the clock, and even when they are used, the computers might have power to spare.

“We’re leveraging a resource that Marquette already owns for a new purpose. Thus, we’re saving money by not having to buy even more computers to support faculty and student research needs,” Struble says.

Other local institutions already are eager to tap the MUGrid’s power. Some of the projects under way include Struble’s collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin on Type 1 diabetes research and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee WATER Institute’s work to analyze gene and protein studies. Struble predicts the MUGrid will be a boon for the region’s energy and water research initiatives.

“Both of these initiatives require sophisticated computational models to truly be on the leading edge of development and technology,” Struble says. “For example, modeling how pollution may spread throughout Milwaukee’s waterways and into Lake Michigan at a high resolution say, on a 10-square-meter basis will require tremendous amounts of computation. We’ve already got faculty modeling combustion engines, blood flow through the heart, volcanic eruptions, etc., and so we can anticipate what kinds of needs the energy and water communities will have.”

Eventually, the hope is that the MUGrid will be linked with similar networks at other institutions, creating an even more powerful research tool. NSE


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