Wednesday, 25 November 2009 08:02

CSIRO hooks up gaming brains to crunch numbers

By
Apart from providing high resolution graphics as a way for gamers to frag each other, the Graphics Processing Units (GPU) attached to every video-card can provide computing power for scientists wanting to unlock the secrets of the human genome.

The hardware that goes into your average family desktop today can be somewhat powerful.  This is usually so of a typical PC gamer, with an emphasis on the video display for high resolution battles.

Though it is important for your explosions to look good, it hardly betters mankind.  Researchers at the CSIRO labs in Canberra Australia are now utilising the power of the PC Video-Card brain, the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) to crunch data in some of sciences more mathematically intense endeavours.

The new GPU cluster will complement the supercomputing resources available to CSIRO researchers such as the recently installed NCI facility at the Australian National University.

The cluster will allow CSIRO scientists to explore what may well be the next generation approach to supercomputing, the use of GPU technology for parallel processing.

The CSIRO GPU cluster will be launched today in Canberra.  The first of its kind in Australia, the cluster is about the size of six large refrigerators and contains 61,440 computer cores.

CSIRO Computational and Simulation Science leader Dr John Taylor said the computer cluster combines Central Processing Units (CPUs) like those in PCs with more powerful Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) to make it more efficient.

“GPUs have been around a while, hidden in your computer game console but now we’re seeing them in scientific computing,” Dr Taylor said.

They were initially designed to render 3D scenes in computer games.  GPUs speed up data processing by allowing a computer to massively multi-task through parallel processing.

Per unit of processing power, a GPU cluster is typically less expensive and more energy efficient than a CPU-based supercomputer.

GPUs are not just useful for image data; they can tackle big science challenges processing petabytes of data and more, very quickly.  Speeds of 30 to 70 times faster than CPUs are common.

“It’s pleasing to see the first installation of a GPU cluster in Australia,” CSIRO Information Sciences Group Executive Dr Alex Zelinsky said.

“This cluster will be part of our family of high-end computers in CSIRO and important to our e-Research Strategy.”

“It will enable CSIRO to, in a cost effective way, be globally competitive in addressing computational challenges for ‘big science’.”

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It will be used for research in advanced materials, cloud computing, data and visualisation tools, genetics and more.

Projects to be run on the cluster include:

* figuring out where tiny fragments of genetic code sit on a genome

* 3D reconstruction of medical images from the Australian Synchrotron

* modelling the interactions between nutrients and plankton in the oceans.

Thirty CSIRO scientists were trained earlier this year to learn how to code their experiments to run on the new GPU cluster.

“It requires a new approach to coding,” Dr Taylor said.

“You have to divide up each task in a way that makes best use of the extra processors. It’s like having to give instructions to 10 bricklayers building a wall, instead of one.”

“We will be training others in the scientific community in how to use our facility.  There’s plenty of interest from universities and government.”

Xenon Systems of Melbourne has installed the cluster in a data centre in
Canberra. It will run Linux and Windows applications.

It is certainly not the first time clusters of game orientated processers have been used for purposes beyond their original design.

Just this week the U.S. Customs Enforcement Cyber Crimes Center (C3) announced the use of a clustered PlayStation 3 network to provide number crunching capabilities.

C3 has purchased 20 old (the ones you can install Linux upon) PlayStation 3’s and is scouring online auction sites for another 40 to build a clustered computer to crack passwords.  These passwords allegedly protect the encrypted data of known child pornographers.

"Bad guys are encrypting their stuff now, so we need a methodology of hacking on that to try to break passwords," Claude E. Davenport, an agent in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Cyber Crimes Center, told the reporters. "The Playstation 3 - its processing component - is perfect for large-scale library attacks."

According to the report, the clustered cell-processor driven PS3 supercomputer comes in at about a quarter the cost of other dedicated server equipment.


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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for iTWire.com, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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