SciTech

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center houses its own powerhouse

Superman. Super dooper. Supercomputer?
Supercomputers are one of our modern marvels: They’re faster, bigger and more powerful than your standard Dell. Weather mapping, earthquake prediction, and atom bomb construction all rely upon behemoths like these to crunch their numbers.
And we happen to have one. Most students on campus aren’t aware, but the Mellon Institute (MI) houses the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC).
A joint effort between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, some of the projects the PSC has worked on deal with severe storm forecasting, protein and DNA structures, quantum chemistry, and advances in laser surgery. Elizabeth Albert, operations specialist, said, “Supercomputers do a lot and many of the applications directly and indirectly help to save lives.”
J. Ray Scott, director of system and operations at the PSC, manages the operations of the machines. He stated humorously about his experience: “I’m more familiar with a supercomputer than a Dell laptop.”
Big Ben is the latest addition to the supercomputers at the Westinghouse Electric Company. It was bought for roughly 35 million dollars and contains about 750 servers. True to Pittsburgh form, Big Ben was painted black and gold, the colors on the city flag. “When you spend 35 million dollars on a computer, you can spend as much money as you want on the colors,” Scott said.
Funding for the PSC comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Different vendors, such as Hewlett Packard, sponsor their construction.
Each year, PSC staff attends the Supercomputing Conference, held in Seattle this year from November 12–18. The conference was an exhibition of projects, high performance computers, workshops, and more. Bill Gates gave the keynote address at the conference.
The PSC offers many opportunities for students. Science-specific workshops, training on various supercomputing applications, and summer internships are beneficial to students from a wide variety of backgrounds with majors ranging from information systems to business administration.
Regarding working at the PSC, Albert stated that “things can be very hectic at times... When it does get crazy [at the PSC], it’s a fun and productive crazy.”