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Computer Cluster Will Enable People Around the World to Help With Research Projects at Southwestern

In the not-too-distant future, people around the world will be able to help with research projects at Southwestern University. This summer, two Southwestern professors plan to set up a computer “cluster” that will enable people to contribute unused computer time to university research projects.

In the not-too-distant future, people around the world will be able to help with research projects at Southwestern University. This summer, two Southwestern professors plan to set up a computer “cluster” that will enable people to contribute unused computer time to university research projects. Steve Alexander, associate professor of physics, and Walt Potter, professor of math and computer science, received $22,000 from Southwestern’s Fleming Collaborative Research and Creative Activity Program to support the project. Anyone interested in donating their unused computer time to Southwestern will just need to go to a web site to download the necessary software. The software, known as BOINC, was developed by a team based at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley to help researchers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Since then, other researchers have used computer clusters running on this software to study everything from climate change to cures for different diseases. Several Web sites, including the BOINC home page (boinc.berkeley.edu) post opportunities for the public to participate in these so-called distributed, or grid, computing projects. “There are thousands of people out there who are interested in these type of projects,” Potter says. This summer, Alexander and Potter plan to get the computer cluster started by connecting computers on campus. “Many of the computers on campus aren’t being used all the time,” Alexander says. “When these computers are idle, their cycles are essentially going to waste. We’re hoping to extract useful work out of these otherwise unused cycles.” The computers will be connected to a server in Mood-Bridwell that Alexander and Potter have named “sylow” in honor of a Norwegian mathematician who proved foundational results in group theory. Once they have made sure the system works, they will open the project to alumni and anyone else who wants to participate. They hope to eventually get several thousand computers connected to the cluster. “Anyone in the world will be able to help us with our research,” Alexander says. Last summer, Alexander and Potter put together a test cluster that harnessed the power of 50 computers. Alexander used this computing power to help calculate the properties of several molecules. “I would not have been able to do that research without the computer cluster,” he says. “It would have taken years on a single fast computer.” Five Southwestern students will be assisting with the project this summer: Amanda Jeffries, a sophomore who is interested in engineering; Sean Watson, a junior who is interested in business and physics; Tommy Rogers, a junior who is interested in computer science, math and physics; Matt Vaugh, a senior who is interested in computer science; and Chris Elliott, a senior who is interested in physics and computer science. One of the first projects Alexander and Potter plan to use the computer cluster for is one in which they will try to find organic molecules that interact with light in a very precisely defined manner. These molecules could potentially be used in a variety of industrial applications such as telecommunications and high-speed computing. “Molecules with high non-linear optical properties act as amplifiers,” Alexander explains. When a small amount of light hits them, it produces a big change. This change could be used to store data or to process data, depending on the device.” To find the molecules, Alexander will use artificial intelligence techniques that are based on algorithms he has written. “By using a process called evolutionary computing we can measure molecules to see how fit they are and if they are a good fit, they continue to the next generation,” he says. “This process will guide us to those molecules that have the properties we are interested in.” Once the computer cluster at Southwestern is developed, it will be available to any faculty members on campus who need large amounts of computer time for their research. More than one person will be able to use the system at a time. Alison Marr, an assistant professor of mathematics, is among the faculty members who might benefit from the computer cluster. Marr says it could help with her research, which examines mathematical structures not previously studied. “Many times the way I begin to study these structures is to look at small cases,” Marr explains. “I do this by running a computer program to test various cases. The faster I can get this information, the quicker I can start to look for patterns and make conjectures about what may be occurring in the more general case. When I run these programs on a single machine, I can only run very small cases in a short amount of time. Large cases may take many days, weeks, or months. However, with this cluster I would be able to run larger cases faster since the work would be split between many machines.” While many large research universities have set up computer clusters, Alexander says there are no other schools of Southwestern’s size that have them. “Basically what we are doing is setting up a supercomputer on campus, except it won’t cost us anything once it is up and running,” Potter says. He notes that the students involved with the project will be learning a very practical skill. “Grid computing is very popular in the real world,” he says. “This is definitely a growing field.”