Rice University will announce Friday morning that it has acquired the state’s first Blue Gene supercomputer, allowing it to further investigate the molecular basis of disease.
The IBM computer, ranked as the 230th most powerful system in the world by the TOP500 Supercomputing site, will also allow the Houston institution to strengthen its international ties.
This week a delegation from Rice, including school president David Leebron and Houston Mayor Annise Parker, signed a collaborative agreement with the University of São Paulo in Brazil to share operation of the supercomputer.
“The great institutions of the 21st century will have to be great international universities,” said Rice Provost George McLendon. “Partnering with Brazil’s largest university is a good fit for us because Houston is a major trading partner with Brazil.”
Both U.S. and Brazilian scientists will use and support the supercomputer.
Supercomputers have become increasingly essential to scientists seeking to study and model all manner of problems, from energy to geophysics to weather forecasting and the basic life sciences.
Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed, but both Rice and IBM say they invested heavily to bring the Blue Gene machine, which became operational this week, to the Houston campus.
Richard Talbot, director of Power Systems for IBM in Austin, said the company was eager to work with Rice, which has previously used supercomputers to attract researchers from the nearby Texas Medical Center.
“Traditionally there has been a big gap between the biologists and the doctors and the computational scientists,” Talbot said. “One of our most significant challenges was how to bridge that gap and allow computer scientists to work with doctors. There are a lot of people talking about how to bridge the gap, but Rice is now way beyond the thinking stage – they’re actually doing it.”
José Onuchic, a Rice physicist, was one of five National Academy of Sciences researchers recruited to Houston last year. He came from the University of California San Diego to further his use of physics to investigate cancer.
“Rice allowed us the opportunity to take the next step in our research,” Onuchic said, “and this supercomputer is one of the main tools that will allow us to do that.”
Supercomputers are just becoming powerful enough to allow researchers to model the extremely complicated interactions of proteins, which break down food and moderate the body’s chemistry, in cells.
Scientists would like to be able to model these interactions, and then change the system to see if, for example, blocking a certain protein from functioning would halt the spread of cancer.
IBM has deployed about 40 of its Blue Gene supercomputers around the world. The systems are noted for packing a lot of computers together in a small space, to create a supercomputing system that’s as energy efficient as possible.
Rice’s model has six racks, meaning it contains nearly 25,000 processor cores that are capable of conducting about 84 trillion mathematical computations each second.
At other sites the Blue Gene computers are used for a variety applications, including running some of the United States’ major weather forecast models.