Pushing the Boundaries of Technology at the Ohio Supercomputer Center


How the Ohio resource powers innovation in Ohio and beyond

Now that we all have powerful computing machines in our pockets and on our desks, the idea of a “supercomputer” may seem unnecessary. But to handle complex issues — from massive research projects to detailed simulations — experts need more than a smartphone or laptop. To accomplish those challenging goals, many in Ohio and beyond turn to the Ohio Supercomputer Center, a state-of-the-art facility providing the computing power to accomplish nearly anything.

“A supercomputer is at the forefront of computational technology, always pushing boundaries with the fastest or most powerful hardware,” said Alan Chalker, Director of Strategic Programs. “Sure, you can do a lot of computing on your phone or laptop, but there are lots of things you can’t do because you’re limited by memory or software or processing power. That’s where we come in. We are a state agency that provides computational resources to all Ohioans — data storage, access to software, training, expertise, anything that’s at the leading edge of computational science.”

The OSC’s home is in the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Ohio Technology Consortium in Columbus, which also houses OARnet, a statewide IT network, and OhioLINK, a content-sharing association of university libraries and the State Library. The OSC’s supercomputers are named after pioneering Ohioans, and namesakes include sharpshooter Annie Oakley, astronaut and politician John Glenn and actress Ruby Dee. The most powerful system was named for Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, and is a machine that demonstrates just how powerful the center’s computing can be.

“Owens, our current flagship system cost us in 2016 about $7 million and has 23,000 processors in it,” said Chalker. “My cell phone has four processors in it, so Owens is the equivalent of thousands of cell phones or laptops. Let’s say my phone can do about a trillion processes or operations per second. Our supercomputer can do about 1.6 quadrillion operations per second.”

Those processing capabilities are used in a variety of ways in Ohio and beyond. Researchers and university faculty members across the state use the center for a broad range of projects and in recent years, the center has flexed its processing muscles on topographical map research for disaster response in Nepal, NASCAR safety simulations and researching the dangerous Lake Erie algae bloom, among many others. In these cases and more, supercomputing may not be needed for extended periods, but is an important resource for time-sensitive projects.

“Supercomputers are very expensive, so we centralize our resources,” said Chalker. “We spend about $6 million every few years to buy a new supercomputer. If every single faculty member or company had to buy their own, that would be incredibly expensive. And people don’t need supercomputers all the time. They have some sort of project that they need to process and then they use that information. If they bought a supercomputer, it would sit around idle most of the time. So by having this centralized resource, we’re aggregating all that purchasing power for organizations who need it across the entire state.”

Since its inception in 1987, the center has evolved as computational power and demands have increased. That evolution shows no signs of stopping, and Chalker said that the new wave of processing needs will come from the sheer volume of data being collected in 2020. With digital assistants like Siri and Alexa on the rise and AI technology following closely behind, the organization believes data processing and storage is its next frontier. And from their Ohio location, the OSC is positioned well for the challenges of the next technological evolution.

“Ohio is uniquely suited for a supercomputer center as a result of the investment that our government has made throughout the years — not just in the technology, but also in the various sectors that we support,” said Chalker. “We’ve got a huge manufacturing base and a growing fintech base in Ohio, and we’ve really evolved into a knowledge-based economy throughout the state. Any time you have a knowledge-based economy, you’re going to need resources like this.”

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