IBM, Microsoft Help Create Montana Supercomputer

Montana's "Big Sky" supercomputer, powered by technology from IBM, Microsoft, NextIO and Nice, is aimed at revitalizing the Rocky Mountain region by attracting business and jobs to the area. Officials with the Rocky Mountain Supercomputer Centers wanted to create an environment where any business can get access to HPC capabilities, regardless of their size.

In 2006, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer told state officials and private companies that he no longer wanted the Rocky Mountain region in the Upper Midwest to be the great American supercomputing desert.

Schweitzer saw high tech as a way of revitalizing the region's economy, attracting businesses and creating jobs, and doing so while minimizing the harm to the area's environment.

Three years later, the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Centers was opened in Butte, Mont. The nonprofit entity was created through the work of both the state government and private corporations like IBM, with the aim of giving anyone of any size-from private businesses to public researchers to government agencies-that needs it access to supercomputing capabilities that they otherwise may not have gotten.

And as they enter 2010, officials with the RMSC are expecting the number of organizations looking to take advantage of this to grow.

"This is the complete democratization of this kind of capability," Earl Dodd, strategist with IBM's Deep Computing business and executive director of the RMSC, said in an interview. "It is available to any kind of business. We don't expect to replace what everyone else has, just supplement it."

Peter Ffoulkes, vice president of marketing for Adaptive Computing, a partner in the creation of the "Big Sky" supercomputer, agreed.

"What this is really about is using HPC [high-performance computing] for businesses to make [the region] competitive," Ffoulkes said in an interview. "It's using supercomputing for economic development."

The Rocky Mountain region until now had been behind the rest of the country is jumping on the high-tech bandwagon. A study conducted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the ITIF (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) in 2007 found that of the five states in the region, only Colorado was among the top 10 in adapting to the new IT-driven economy.

Colorado was ninth, followed by Utah in 12th. After that, Idaho was 24th, and Montana and Wyoming were 42nd and 43rd, respectively.

During a presentation in June 2009, when the RMSC opened, Alex Philp, president and chairman of the center, showed a map of the United States. The region was circled, and labeled as "The Great American Supercomputing Desert."

The Big Sky supercomputer will change all that, Philp said in an interview. The affordable, distributed nature of the system will bring supercomputing to businesses, research facilities and educational institutions throughout the region, and even beyond, he said. It will attract businesses and bring jobs to the Rocky Mountain states.

"You don't have to be part of a larger corporation [to take advantage of supercomputing capabilities]," Philp said. "We don't have to limit our lives by black lines, by borders on a map."

The state of Montana teamed up with IBM to create Big Sky, an IBM 1350 array that comprises a host of System x and System p servers. IBM has invested more than $3 million into the initiative, and is partnering with a number of other tech vendors, including Adaptive Computing, Microsoft, NextIO-which sells virtual networking technology-and Nice Systems, which offers solutions and services that help analyze data from telephony, e-mail, the Internet, radio and video.

The system, which primarily is subsidized by Montana taxpayers, runs on Microsoft's Windows HPC Server 2008, giving customers the familiar Windows experience in their supercomputing environment.

It also offers a cooling exchange system that incorporates IBM's Cool Blue technology and uses the heat generated by the cluster to help heat the offices on the building's third, fourth and fifth floors, saving about $40,000 in the cost of heating the building.

It currently offers 3.8 teraflops (trillions of floating point operations per second), and will grow to 25 to 50 teraflops, according to IBM. If demand exceeds Big Sky's capacity, the RMSC can shift workloads to IBM's Computing on Demand cloud computing center.

The computing resources within Big Sky can be dynamically allocated based on workload demands, so customers only pay for the resources they use, according to Philp. The goal was to create a powerful computing environment that is easy to manage, flexible and dynamic, and is accessible to anyone who needs it, said IBM's Dodd.

"It is the complete democratization of this kind of capability," Dodd said. "It is available to any kind of business."

Over the past few months, Big Sky has attracted a wide range of customers, according to IBM officials. For example, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are using the system to help manage the global food supply, while professors and researchers from the University of Montana and Montana State University are conducting research into such areas as astrophysics, climate and erosion modeling, metallurgy and intelligent transportation.

In addition, one company is mapping the placement of wind farms, another is using the computer to help mitigate risks associated with bioreactor yields, and another-Scalable Analytics-is analyzing real-time stock feeds.

An Indian reservation is using Big Sky to study carbon management on tribal lands.

Such examples are giving life to Gov. Schweitzer's vision of making the Butte supercomputing center the engine that is going to revitalize the Rocky Mountain region.

"He's not the kind of guy who wants to be second-best in anything," Philp said.