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Big-data computer will facilitate research, collaboration

By Eric Sorensen, WSU science writer

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University recently cut the ribbon on a high-performance computer, heralding a new era of gleaning insights from large and unwieldy masses of data.

An investment of $2.7 million over five years, the Kamiak computer operates on a “condominium” model: researchers purchase nodes, which guarantees storage and computing power. Nodes not in use are available to other researchers, which gives all “investors” more computing resources than if they bought stand-alone systems.

In addition, a couple of nodes are set aside so researchers who are not yet investors may evaluate Kamiak for their work.

Partners in bringing the Kamiak computer to WSU are represented at a recent ribbon cutting by Arts and Sciences Dean Daryll DeWald, left, Interim President Dan Bernardo, Vice President for Information Technology Services Sasi Pillay, Vice President for Research Chris Keane and CAHNRS Acting Dean Kimberlee Kidwell.

The computer will enable WSU’s Strategic Research Computing Initiative to better anticipate research needs, reflect research priorities like the Grand Challenges and grow partnerships, top faculty, education and training.

Kamiak is “an essential starting point, but it’s also something that can grow tremendously according to our needs,” said Aurora Clark, an associate professor of chemistry who has developed computer programs to analyze molecular networks.

With the new WSU Center for Institutional Research Computing, Kamiak will stimulate collaborations “in a regional context that we have not had before,” she said.

Creation of a collaborative community “will be one of the most important components of having this on campus,” agreed Bert Tanner, an assistant professor in integrative physiology and neuroscience. He investigates how myosin, a motor protein, uses chemical energy to make muscles contract. It’s a complicated process that requires high-performance computing to simulate.

“As you’re scaling up from one motor protein to a very complex network of motor proteins, there’s a lot to keep track of in terms of scale and scope and the number of computations involved,” he said.

Kamiak was conceived, procured and installed through the efforts of the offices of the provost, research, finance and administration and information technology systems, as well as the colleges of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, Arts and Sciences and the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.

While calling Kamiak “a continual work in progress,” Interim President Dan Bernardo praised those who pulled together “to address a shortcoming in our research infrastructure.

“It’s about identifying where the bottlenecks are,” he said, “and committing to strategic priorities and allocating resources to where we get the biggest bang for the buck for our faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and everybody else.”



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