BlueFern Super Computer Facility

BlueFern Super Computer Facility

In 2007 the BlueFern computing facility upgraded to the first IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer in the Southern Hemisphere. The MacDiarmid Institute’s contribution made this purchase possible.

About the Equipment:

The IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer is essentially a huge calculator which processes very complicated calculations very quickly. It is a purpose designed research tool and one of the greenest computers in existence. The Blue Gene is hooked up to the KAREN network, a 50 million dollar high speed internet network installed by the NZ Government. This allows researchers from universities and research centres across New Zealand and overseas to access the facility.

Transforming Research:

“I don’t think there’s any other piece of equipment in the country that can have such a big impact on NZ science across the board,” says Shaun Hendy, computer simulation expert and former deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute. The Blue Fern team has already introduced 175 researchers from different fields of science to the facility. “We uncovered an insatiable need,” says BlueFern Director Peter Helms. “Within six months the first machine was saturated with work. We have astrophysics; we’re doing bio-engineering – helping industry to make new devices for health care; we have people modelling the blood flow of the brain in humans so they get better understanding of patient specific medicine; we forecast NZ’s weather; we do computational chemistry; we do genomics and proteomics.” BlueFern is all about making research more productive. “We’ve had case after case of researchers saying they’ve produced so many results from the experiment, and did it so quickly they were able to write three papers,” Peter says. The additional computing power is transforming nanotechnology research across the board. “Even with the best microscopy tools in the world” Shaun explains “it’s impossible to see everything that’s going on in nanotechnology. This is because of the difficulty of seeing such small details and capturing dynamics and the range of scales spanned. Whereas when we do our computer simulations we can see exactly what’s going on.” You program in the underlying physical laws, which are all known, and an initial configuration of atoms and the supercomputer works out how they interact and form structures. “I really think of it as my experimental tool kit,” Shaun says. The increased computing power allows Shaun’s group to scale their simulations up to “make real predictions about real materials and real devices.” Several of Shaun’s simulations have lead to patents. Some have even lead to the discovery of devices. “We’re hoping to generate a lot more examples of computer simulation paving the path to commercialization,” says Shaun So far, young researchers have been the most enthusiastic users of the facility and Shaun believes that as a more computer savvy generation of students come through, computational research will play a more and more central role internationally. At Canterbury University, the BlueFern group has set up a diploma in High Performance Computing – the first in Australia and New Zealand. The course is open to postgraduates from all backgrounds, even social scientists, who can use the facility to process large amounts of statistics.

Transforming Relationships:

“Our approach with BlueFern is about people,” says Peter. “It’s about up-skilling the next generation so that they’re using the types of systems that the very best researchers at Harvard or Princeton are using.” BlueFern users are full of praise for the openness and helpfulness of the team. “They organise regular computer user group meetings to explain new tools available, to address specific questions, and to get the users to know each other from more than just user names,” says Iris Vargas Jentzsch who is doing her PhD in cellular and molecular biology. To set up access to the system you fill out a simple form on the BlueFern website. Researchers unfamiliar with programming code can access the facility via a user friendly web interface. Without MacDiarmid support BlueFern wouldn’t be possible. Its very existence is a testament to the determination, cooperation and foresight of the partners who got together to make it happen. One of BlueFern’s aims is to encourage New Zealand to invest in a national computing facility. By building positive collaborative relationships between institutions and researchers throughout New Zealand, the team hopes to lay the foundations for such a venture.  

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