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Superpowered

 


Superpowered
UMaine's high-performance computing plugs in to research, education and economic development

About the Photo: The power of visualization is clearly demonstrated on a bank of monitors that serves as the prototype for UMaine researcher Bruce Segee's latest device. Specialized software divides an image into the appropriate number of pieces, which are then distributed to monitors to create an oversized version of the original. From simple digital files to incredibly complex computer simulations, images displayed on similar monitor mosaics will offer users the big picture without compromising resolution.
 

Bruce Segee
Bruce Segee

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When it comes to technology, small is definitely big. By the mid-1980s, electrical engineers and computer specialists had succeeded in stuffing the 10,000-pound computer into the 10-pound bag, and the trend toward tiny simply accelerated from there. From razor-thin cell phones to MP3 players hardly larger than a stick of gum, the devices we depend on for work and entertainment have been put, quite literally, in the palms of our hands.

For some technologies, however, small size can still be a drawback. Anyone who has leaned in close to his or her computer screen trying to make out the details of a thumbnail photo or undersized illustration can attest to the frustration little images can cause. Limited image resolution and monitor size constraints have been a serious hurdle for researchers, hampering their ability to translate large sets of data into easy-to-interpret graphics.

Expansion programs and screen magnifiers could offer grainy enlargements of smaller images, but researchers who wanted to scrutinize their work in all of its oversized, densely pixilated glory had nowhere to turn. Until now.

University of Maine Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Bruce Segee and his talented team of student engineers have developed a visualization system for computer images that allows users to combine multiple monitors to create oversized images without sacrificing resolution. The system promises computer users from scientists to seventh graders an opportunity to see the big picture.

"A researcher could link together monitors in parallel to look at data in the lab, or a middle school class could coordinate its laptops to examine a Web page or work together on an experiment," says Segee, as one of his undergrads adjusts the image on a 4-foot-square assemblage of monitors in his lab. "It's high performance, high resolution. It's a very powerful learning tool."

The work is partially supported by a National Science Foundation Major Research Infrastructure grant, awarded to Segee and several other UMaine researchers, including Yifeng Zhu, also in electrical and computer engineering; James Fastook of computer science; Huijiue Xue, Fei Chai and Steven Cousins in marine sciences; Peter Koons in geodynamics; and Kiran Bhaganagar in mechanical engineering.

Segee's device, which utilizes special software that divides the image and coordinates its distribution to any number of monitors, is already proving to be a valuable tool for scientists who specialize in computer modeling. Three-dimensional images, created using thousands or even tens of thousands of data points, can be easily viewed in their entirety on Segee's supersized visualization monitor.

"In my research, what I display are animations of ice sheets as they go through their theoretical cycles. I look at a picture every 100 years or 500 years over the course of the 100,000-year cycle, so I'm looking at at least 200 time slices. That's a lot of pictures, representing an incredible amount of numbers," says Fastook, UMaine computer science and climate change professor.

"My work is totally dependent on computer technology to provide a graphic display of what's happening. What Bruce has done with his wall of monitors is provide a larger, higher resolution display than I could buy, at a much lower cost than the largest displays that are currently available. Not only can you view a large picture and share it with a group, you can walk up close and examine the fine details. It's a very nice device."


Segee is targeting the next generation of scientists and engineers as well, working with Caleb Carter and Roger Blanchette, graduate students in computer engineering; Adam Tibbetts and Brian Tomassetti, undergraduates in electrical engineering; and Emily Albee, a graduate student in education, to make the new visualization system a reality for Maine's middle schoolers. He envisions a simple, easy-to-use program that teachers could access through the Web, allowing them to use their students' laptops in the same way that Segee uses linked monitors in the lab.

From interactive maps of the world to detailed diagrams of a microchip, a broad range of images could be easily viewed by groups of students, offering an exciting new perspective on learning.

"Middle schoolers don't need more to learn, they need tools to help them do more with what they already have," says Segee, who was recently awarded the Butler Professorship in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"This project is not about the wall of monitors, it's about what you can do with it."

Multiple-monitor visualization systems are far from the first of Segee's forays into supersized computing systems. Since 2001, he has been a driving force behind UMaine's supercomputing program, when funding was used to build a 208-node cluster supercomputer based on Pentium III processors. The supercomputer's current incarnation, located in Target Technology Center, boasts an IQ of more than 500 (measured in CPUs, of course). It cranks out millions of computations per minute, 24 hours a day.

Originally developed for projects funded by the military, the system is unique among supercomputers in that its computational powers are based not in one specially designed device, but in the collective capabilities of hundreds of off-the-shelf home computer CPU's.

"At any given time, computers have a maximum clock speed, a minimum transistor size and other limitations that we're simply stuck with until the technology develops further," says Segee. "What we have done here is push the operating speed faster than the limit by using multiple computers (with) each (doing) a little piece of the work. The big advantage of our supercomputer is that it is much less expensive because it is made up of individual components that are mass produced. The first supercomputer cluster that we built here using the Army grant cost about half of what just the annual service contract would cost for a single, custom-built supercomputer with comparable abilities."


High-performance computing at the University of Maine has proven good for business in the state. Corporate users include Applied Thermal Sciences, a Sanford-based business that has been a valued partner since the supercomputer's inception, assisting in the design, characterization and tuning of the cluster.

Large companies also using the facilities include giants such as Raytheon and Honeywell. Smaller companies include DN American, Combustion Research and Flow Technology, and ANGEL Secure Networks.

"Some companies prefer that we not publicize what they do," says Segee.

"We do our best to balance the needs of a business with the mission of a public university. We're a resource for the state, we're here for everyone, but that doesn't mean we'll give someone's trade secrets to their competitors."

Many companies find that the facilities at the University of Maine allow them to do computations in a few days that may otherwise take weeks or even years to run.

"A facility like this represents a major investment in space, cooling and personnel to make it run," says Segee. "It just makes a ton of sense for a business to worry about the computation it wants to perform, and not how to build, house, power, cool and maintain the computer to do it."

Humming away in its dark, air-conditioned room, the UMaine supercomputer collective quietly does its work, conducting millions of simulations and computations in electronically coordinated harmony. At any given time, as many as 100 different research projects are being conducted by the system, each one allotted the necessary time and computing ability it requires according to an automated master control.

The system is kept at maximum operating efficiency by computer specialists John Koskie and Justin Bronder, who monitor the supercomputer around the clock, making repairs and adjustments whenever problems arise.

"We have so many different kinds of projects go through here, it's incredible. From climate change to molecular movement, from ice flows to hypersonic missiles, our clients are modeling a huge range of processes," says Segee. "We have built a lot on what we learned from that first cluster. Overall, it has been an enormous success."

by David Munson
May-June, 2007

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