Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Theory Cluster

The use of high performance computers has had a tremendous impact on the progress of science. Theses machines have enabled us to advance our understanding of everything from elementary particles to the large scale structure of the universe. The fastest systems of any era are referred to as supercomputers. For many years supercomputing was synonymous with the machines designed by Seymour Cray at Control Data Corporation and later at Cray Research.

Supercomputers have always been very large and expensive. They require a large amount of electrical power and exotic cooling systems. They are typically a shared resource only used at large government research laboratories and academic institutions. By the late 1980s a new class of minisupercomputer was introduced. With a price starting at less than one million dollars these smaller air-cooled systems could exclusively be used by a research group or academic department.

In the mid 1990s the Brown University Department of Physics was the first physics department in the U.S. to acquire a Cray system. In Augusts 1995 a Cray EL98 was installed. This was followed in late 1996 with the installation of a Cray J916. They were used for high-energy and condensed matter theoretical physics. Details of the research are at the Computational High Energy Physics group page.

The Theory Cluster website
The Theory Cluster Machines webpage of the High Energy Physics Group at Brown University. The page was created in late 1995 and includes a publicity photo of the Cray EL98 that had just been installed. The snapshot was captured using NCSA X Mosaic on a SPARCstation 5 running Solaris.

These supercomputers were used by Professor Gerald Guralnik who played a crucial role in developing the theory that predicted the existence of the Higgs boson. In a presentation from 2002 titled "Computing to Learn Physics while watching computers grow up" he describes his long involvement in computational physics.

The Theory Cluster website
The Theory Computer Cluster machines included SGI graphics workstations which were used to visualize the data generated by the Cray supercomputers. The Sun SPARCstation 5 was the console used to start and manage the Cray J916.
These Cray supercomputers had not been used for many years and there are now more powerful computing resources available on campus. The Cray J916 was recently donated to the Retro-Computing Society of RI where we are working to restore the system to operational condition. I'll be describing the restoration progress here over the next few weeks.

Cray J916
The Cray J916 powered up at RCS/RI with a glowing System Ready light on the front of the mainframe cabinet. Photo by Dave Fischer.

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