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Cutting costs for oceangoing freight shippers and finding new drugs for cancer and blood pressure might not seem to be related endeavors. What these challenges share in common is how they’re being tackled.

Cardinal Grid boosts research computing power

Cutting costs for oceangoing freight shippers and finding new drugs for cancer and blood pressure might not seem to be related endeavors.

What these challenges share in common is how they’re being tackled.

Researchers around the world are using networks of computers to do what single computers cannot: analyze enormous data sets. Weather patterns, protein folding, AIDS drugs and much more are being studied this way.

The SETI@home project, for instance, ties together thousands of computers to process space data from radio telescopes. Another large grid of 20,000 or more PCs and other computers across the nation is run by Purdue University. It is called the BoilerGrid.

Cardinal Grid

Researchers at Speed School in cooperation with other units at UofL recently created the Cardinal Grid network on campus to tie into the BoilerGrid. UofL’s grid of connected PCs initially includes 20 machines (referred to as "nodes") but is expected at press time to include about 100 computers on campus. The result will be a powerful low-cost tool that can be accessed by researchers in disparate disciplines.

"When you consider these grids as one big computer, you realize that these types of computers are actually the largest in the world because of the enormous throughput," says Nathan Johnson, systems administrator in the Dahlem Supercomputer Laboratory at Speed. Johnson has helped lead the effort to set up and maintain the UofL grid.

"This is a really great opportunity for researchers to obtain computing resources with good reliability at little or no cost to them because the computers are already in place," he adds.

The Cardinal Grid is not to be confused with Kentucky DataSeam, a grid of thousands of computers set up at schools throughout Kentucky to aid in cancer research being done at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center. But the concept is the same.

The idea is to tie together PCs being used for other purposes in offices all over campus and to allow them to be accessed by researchers running programs when the machines are idle. If a computer idles for 15 minutes, researchers working on projects in the grid can access them for their work. Software programs run by researchers on the network can determine which machines are accessible at any time.

Along with Johnson, Speed School personnel working to set up and run the grid include Dr. James Graham, chair and professor of electrical and computer engineering, Chuck Sites, computer systems and network manager for ECE and Ed Birchler, director of the Dahlem Supercomputer Laboratory.

Early users of the grid include Aldo McLean, an industrial engineering post-doctoral student who is running Arena simulation software on the grid to model scenarios to improve cargo ship efficiency.

Graham and Johnson also have used the grid to hunt for pharmacophores, active sites in large molecules that show promise as potential drugs.

"Where else can a researcher get 200cpus of computing power for nothing?" Johnson asks.

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