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Supercomputing Q & A

Q: What is high-performance computing?

A: High-performance computing is a term used to describe the work done by what are commonly known as "supercomputers." Scientists and researchers use these massive computers as a tool to solve some of the largest problems facing mankind. Supercomputers allow researchers to process massive amounts of information in a way that would otherwise be impossible. This allows them to look at broader questions in more detail than ever before.

Q: Where will the computer be built?

A: The computer will be built in the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Computational Sciences building, a state-owned facility on the campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Completed in 2005, JICS is a state-of-the-art facility designed to accommodate the world's most powerful computing resources.

Q: Does that mean the computer belongs to ORNL?

A: No. The National Science Foundation is providing funding directly to UT to build and manage the computer through the newly-formed National Institute for Computational Science, as part of the NSF's Cyberinfrastructure program. The computer's location on the campus ORNL uniquely positions it as part of one of the largest clusters of computing power on Earth, with links to an international computing network that puts UT and East Tennessee among the world's leaders in high-performance computing.

Q: What is NICS?

A: The National Institute for Computational Science, or NICS, is a consortium of universities, research institutions, and computing industry leaders -- led by UT -- that will build and manage the supercomputer created by this NSF grant. NICS will serve as a link between the computer and the national "cyberinfrastructure" envisioned by the NSF -- a nationwide portfolio of powerful computers that will serve the critical functions required to keep America globally competitive in science and innovation for decades to come.

Q: How fast will the computer be?

A: Very fast! A signature of the high-performance computing industry is that computer speed is constantly on the rise. As of today, the computer built at the JICS facility is expected to operate at more than 1,000 trillion calculations each second. For comparison, that's almost a million times faster than the average home computer. This computer will do in one second what would take every person on Earth, all doing a calculation every second, two entire days to complete. That speed is accomplished by linking together thousands of computer processors into once giant machine.

Q: What kind of work will the computer be used for?

A: While specific users for the computer have not yet been selected, scientists and researchers who are granted time on the computer will work to answer some enormous questions. The topics they address will range from astrophysics and the origins of the universe to understanding how materials are put together at the smallest levels, leading to stronger, better and lighter products. The computer will be a valuable tool for scientists and researchers from Tennessee and around the country.

Q: What does this mean for UT? For East Tennessee? For the state in general?

A: This grant instantly puts UT among the nation's supercomputing elite, and is a strong statement about the success of the university in establishing itself as a research leader. For East Tennessee, the computer will join an unmatched array of computing power that reaches from UT Knoxville to ORNL to UT's Chattanooga campus, where the recently-renamed SimCenter National Center for Computer Engineering is another national leader. These resources draw jobs and investment to our area, and serve as a catalyst not only for scientific innovation, but for economic development. For the state of Tennessee, the computer can serve as the linchpin for statewide research endeavors that will affect Tennesseans from Mountain City to Memphis.

Q: Do any UT researchers use these kinds of computers now?

A: Yes. A number of UT researchers are involved with work relying on high-performance computing. UT Knoxville Distinguished Scientist Jack Dongarra is a global expert in computing, and created the benchmark used to determine how fast the computers operate. UT-ORNL Governor's Chair Jeremy Smith recently published findings based on computer-aided research that give insight into protein folding, a process at the root of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Other UT researchers use the computers to understand how to create better alternative fuels and how to develop materials using their tiniest building blocks.

Q: When will the computer be finished?

A: A firm date has not yet been set for final installation of the computer, but while the computer is being brought up to speed, plans are in place for researchers to begin working with the existing computing resources available in East Tennessee, in order to give them the opportunity to develop research methods that will make the most effective use of the new computer once it is installed.

Q: How many jobs will be created by the computer?

A: The building and operation of the computer alone is expected to create 50 jobs that will attract some of the brightest minds in the nation. These bright people will write proposals for research projects that are expected to eventually lead to more jobs.