March 1, 1999 Vol. III, No. 11

CSUN Takes Quantum Leap with Supercomputer Acquisition

Northridge Joins Elite Tier of Southern California Campuses Running Such High-Powered Systems

(l to r) Steve Fitzgerald, James Moore and Tim Fox.

Cal State Northridge has leapt to the forefront of university computing technology in Southern California with the recent acquisition of a high-powered supercomputer-one that a campus technology staffer promptly nicknamed for a character on "The Simpsons" television series.

CSUN thus becomes one of only a handful of Southern California universities to possess a supercomputer and, as a result, now houses one of the largest computational centers in the Cal State system. CSUN also is one of only a very few CSU campuses in the state to have that kind of technology, officials said.

Housed in a remote corner of the Engineering Building, the new Silicon Graphics Inc. 24-processor supercomputer-which the university obtained at essentially no out-of-pocket cost-arrived in the fall and is due to be officially dedicated later in the spring. "Having equipment of this caliber opens up immense educational opportunities for our students and for our faculty to collaborate with our industrial partners," said Steve Fitzgerald, the assistant professor of computer science who led the team that acquired the new machine.

The supercomputer-housed in the Northridge Computational Center (NCC) within the College of Engineering and Computer Science-is valued at more than $1 million and was made possible through a campus partnership with manufacturer Silicon Graphics and contractor Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works.

The campus has a drastically discounted three-year lease on the supercomputer through the leasing arm of Silicon Graphics, something Fitzgerald said the company was willing to do partly as a donation, partly to interest students/future workers and partly for industry competition reasons.

Silicon Graphics is one of the leading manufacturers of supercomputers. With CSUN's new acquisition, Fitzgerald said no other entity in the San Fernando Valley area-campus, business or otherwise-has as much SG technology in a single location.

Lockheed Martin is providing dual support. First, Lockheed Vice President of Engineering Bob Goetz was on campus Feb. 22 to present the first of three $50,000 donations that will support the computational center during the coming three years.

Second, the company has promised to support 25 percent of the operations of the supercomputer for the three-year period. In exchange for that support, the company will have access to the supercomputer during its stay on campus.

Those revenue sources essentially cover the university's lease costs for the supercomputer, meaning it will be available to students and faculty at essentially no cost. Leasing is the preferred approach to acquiring such equipment, compared to purchasing, because the technology involved changes so rapidly.

Among Southern California universities, Caltech and UC San Diego probably have the most extensive supercomputer facilities, Fitzgerald said. But apart from those, CSUN's new equipment surpasses the technology available at most other universities around the region, he said.

At CSUN, Fitzgerald said the supercomputer will give faculty and students a chance to partner with private industry on research and design projects, while giving students practical, hands-on experience working on state-of-the-art equipment.

"We have industry partners, and we are looking to grow," Fitzgerald said. "We want more partners and more collaborators." The deal also is an advantage to Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works because CSUN is one of the company's largest suppliers of professional employees, officials said.

"Our students will be able to walk out of here and compete with students from any university in the country for a job," said John Guarrera, director of the Center for Research and Service in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

CSUN has never before had a supercomputer of its own. The term refers to the super high-end computing machines that use dozens or even hundreds of parallel processors for very demanding applications that simply cannot be run productively on lesser units.

But even in the world of technology, there is humor. It was James Moore, the college's director of technology, who gave CSUN's new supercomputer its nickname-"Burns," after the maniacal corporate boss character Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons" show he enjoys watching at home.

To illustrate the power of the new supercomputer, Tim Fox, professor of mechanical engineering and director of CSUN's Design, Analysis and Simulation Laboratory, talked about the demands of his research in vehicle aerodynamics and roadway performance.

"Let's say you wanted to study the air flow around a car and you wanted to create a computer simulation to find ways to cut down the drag on the car," Fox said. "This computer can do that in dozens of hours, versus years on a personal computer. We can now do things we could never have done prior to the NCC."

With that kind of capability, Fitzgerald said there already is a waiting list of student and faculty projects seeking to use the computer. And Fitzgerald and other university personnel working with the supercomputer already are looking at prospects for expanding its power through add-on processors.

Subtly referenced through the supercomputer's "Burns" nickname is another goal Fitzgerald and others have for the machine-the idea of partnering with entertainment industry companies that have become so prominent in the region in recent years and also are so heavily dependent on technology.

"The SGI Origin 2000 is a perfect platform for us to start doing these types of projects," Fitzgerald said. "I am looking forward to working with other companies and industries to enhance public/private partnerships with the university and educational opportunities for our students."

-Carmen Ramos Chandler

March 1, 1999

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