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$1.2 million grant allows installation of Graphics Processing Unit based High Performance computer
$1.2 million grant allows installation of Graphics Processing Unit based High Performance computer

Discovering how galaxies form, understanding the formation of stars, tracing light around a black hole, comprehending how galaxies are distributed through space, examining how that evolution takes place—these are all questions researchers here at the UA hope to answer. The images and data involved with exploring these questions, however, are immense. Handling this may become easier thanks to a grant written by Brant Robertson, Assistant Professor in the Astronomy department, along with a team of researchers from Astronomy (; the School of Information, Science, Technology, and Arts (SISTA); and University Information Technology Services (UITS).

The grant, funded by the National Science Foundation (, provides for the upcoming installation of a new Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)–based High Performance Computer in the new University Research Data Center (RDC), which officially opened its doors in February 2012. Faculty, students, and researchers use this facility to process data collected during their research. The new computer will have five times the power of those already in the RDC.

Researchers will use the GPU system in the RDC for a variety of projects. One major project within SISTA ( includes using computational power to take defocused images of plant pathogens in an attempt to identify their evolution. This will take massive amounts of computational power that even the computers in the RDC would take a very long time to complete. Robertson says the need for cutting edge computational hardware to execute these types of projects is why he and the team of researchers wrote the grant.


The new computer will also serve training. Robertson hopes to offer classes like computational physics, which will help teach students to use the machines.

The $1,270,933 grant will be funded over the next five years for Robertson and his team to use to help buy the computer. UITS ( is also heavily involved in the project. The grant specifies UITS would match 30 percent of the funding needed for the computers; this commitment also supports procurement, installation, and ongoing maintenance of the machines. As a result of that commitment, 30 percent of the time on the computer will be reserved for anyone on campus to conduct their own research on them. Having a facility like the RDC in the Computer Center—offering the necessary power, water cooling racks, storage, and continuous operations support—enabled Brant to ask for this equipment for his research.  

“[The computer is] an amazing resource for a single university to have through NSF. It’s actually relatively rare to get a grant for just building a big computer cluster. I think that the strength of the UA is that we have a number of diverse people and we all use supercomputers,” says Romeel Davé, Assistant Professor in the Astronomy department. Davé says these computers are extremely important for not only doing the work, but also attracting good researchers and students to the UA.

With the grant now officially funded, Robertson says the next step is deciding on a vendor to buy the computer from. Several vendors, such as IBM, HP, and SGI, are bidding and showing that they can build this type of machine. A committee composed of astronomers, UITS personnel, and individuals from SISTA will decide on the winning bid. Once the machine is decided upon, expect it to be up and running at the RDC in the next six months to one year.