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Computing with Hyak

The Power of Sharing

Story by
Nancy Joseph

What do UW researchers needing a powerful computer have in common with luxury condo owners in tropical Kauai?

Certainly not the weather. Or oceanfront real estate. But both have found a way to maximize their investment by pooling resources with neighbors. Condo dwellers can own a small piece of a luxury property by sharing the costs of building maintenance and management. UW researchers can own a small piece of a powerful campuswide computing facility, Hyak, by sharing the costs of facility maintenance and management. The College of Arts and Sciences is one of five UW units that provided seed money for Hyak.

“Hyak is a really innovative idea,” says David Kaplan, professor of physics and director of the Institute for Nuclear Theory. Before it was created, Kaplan explains, “all sorts of researchers were getting grants for building computer clusters, and were then faced with the very difficult problem of where to put them and how to power them. Power and cooling for a computer cluster is very nontrivial, and you cannot just stick the machines in some custodial closet, yet that is what lots of scientists were doing, with very poor results and a lot of time and effort wasted.”

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Jeff Gardner (left) and Chance Reschke stand beside some of Hyak's hardware. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

With Hyak, researchers can stop worrying about the computing infrastructure and instead focus on their research. Rather than owning and managing a computer cluster, they buy "nodes" with their grant money— central processing unit (CPU) cards that slide into slots at the Hyak facility—and leave management concerns to knowledgeable UW Technology staff. The best part: when researchers are not using their nodes, those nodes are available for other Hyak users’

“It takes sharing to the next level,” says Chance Reschke, research consultant for UW-IT and one of the driving forces behind Hyak. “When you need more computing than you paid for, it’s available. When you need less, someone else can use it.”

This new approach to computing on campus grew out of researchers’ need for more computing power. Until 2008 there was little appetite on the UW campus for centrally supported cyberinfrastructure, since just a handful of researchers required high performance computing. But now researchers across many disciplines crunch immense amounts of data, well beyond the abilities of the most powerful desktop computers. lolo, a large-scale data storage system, works in tandem with Hyak to handle all that data. “By building at a sufficiently large scale and pooling resources, Hyak and lolo are capable of computation and data storage that are well beyond any one participant’s budget,” says Reschke. “This approach also allows us to engineer upgrades to the campus computer networks, supporting very fast transfers of huge volumes of data to systems that can handle it. It’s a balanced approach where networks, storage, and CPUs grow together.”

Researchers in the College of Arts and Sciences use Hyak to study everything from subatomic particles to distant galaxies, using complex computer models to simulate systems that cannot be tested physically in real time.

Nuclear physicist Martin Savage focuses on the physics of the atomic nucleus, specifically how neutrons and protons interact to form the nucleus. Through computer modeling, he has simulated the behavior of a simple atomic nucleus; his next goal is to model heavier nuclei involving far more complex interactions. 

“Martin’s research is simply not possible to achieve with experiments involving actual nuclei,” says Jeff Gardner, a computational scientist in the departments of Physics and Astronomy, who has been an adviser to the Hyak project since its inception. “It’s just an intractable model to do without simulation."

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The inner workings of the UW's Hyak computing equipment. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

Gardner explains that there are trillions of time steps involved in measuring changes in the nucleus in the course of one second—complex computations requiring a massive and powerful computer. Savage reserves time on several of the largest supercomputers in the U.S., but first his team must design and test code that can run on such a complex system. Hyak provides a platform for that testing and is able to handle the mountains of data produced by the supercomputer.

Vikki Meadows, professor of astronomy, also uses Hyak. Working with biologists and atmospheric scientists, Meadows uses computer modeling to explore how earth-like, habitable planets might evolve. The work involves extensive computations as numerous variables—the composition of the atmosphere, the percentage of a planet’s surface covered in water, the water’s reflective qualities—are adjusted and tested.

For now, the number of Hyak nodes that Meadows has purchased meet her needs. But if she chooses to run larger simulations in the future, Hyak is designed to accommodate that expansion. “It’s a good mechanism for uplift,” says Gardner. “The fact that you can move into it gradually—can buy in on a small scale—becomes a good way to scale up.”

Hyak currently has 134 active users. While less than 20 percent of them own 80 percent of the computer’s capability, even researchers owning just a handful of nodes can tap into Hyak’s impressive power by accessing idle nodes. “You could buy 4 nodes but use 50 when they are available, then buy 50 and use 100,” says Gardner. “Everyone benefits from this ability to scale up and become more competitive.” Thanks to this sharing of nodes, Hyak runs at an impressive 90 percent capacity.

Reschke anticipates a growing interest in Hyak, with more users sharing the system in the future. Fortunately, he and other Hyak planners designed the system to evolve as more users come on board and technology advances.

“We’ve planned for the CPUs to be replaced every three years, four times more powerful at every step,” explains Reschke. “This allows us to scale performance over time, increasing power by 20 times over the next decade with no more electricity or space.”

Despite their fabulous views, how many condo owners can say that?