Sydney supercomputer to battle bushfires

The University of Western Sydney has unveiled a cost-effective supercomputer, for which they have plans to develop a bushfire modelling system and a virtual baby for medical training.

On 13 December the NSW Minister for Information Technology, Kim Yeadon, officially opened the government-funded High Performance Computing Centre (HPCC) in Penrith and unveiled its $75,000 supercomputer.

Built with commodity components, the 20-node GWS Beowulf cluster operates on Mandrake 9.0 Linux. The 4U rack mount chassis uses two Athlon MP 2000+ CPUs, with 1.024GB of DDR RAM and fixed disk storage of 800GB.

It uses software developed at UWS as well as MPI/PVM message passing libraries, which permit a number of UNIX or NT machines to connect to a single network to use one large parallel computer. A 30MB datalink with the Australian Centre for Advanced Computing and Communications and Nepean Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit allows distributed data analysis.

The machine will be used in virtual reality, computational finance, biotechnology and engineering. While provided to benefit local industry, the supercomputer allows UWS to further its development of a bushfire modelling system.

"We've previously been working with our rural fire services and developed a cellular model of fire behaviour," said Associate Professor George Bryan.

"In the next 12 to 18 months we'll move it into the HPCC and use advanced graphics. We'll work on the visualisation of terrain, which will be useful for training. Currently the program is in C+, but we'll look at a new version in C++."

The processing power of the supercomputer will allow program developers to use intensive calculations to illustrate ‘what if' scenarios of various weather and terrain conditions on fire behaviour.

The more immediate project, though, is the virtual baby, demonstrated by Yeadon using a virtual reality glove to affect a baby onscreen. Once it is complete, medical staff will use the virtual baby in training for resuscitation techniques.

This is just part of one goal of involving local industry, particularly SMEs. Targeting these businesses meant the supercomputer had to be relatively cheap.

"This system offers affordability for local businesses," said Yeadon. "They can use it for proof of concept for applications testing, and intensive calculation projects."

Bryan said the hardware was only acquired six months ago, and he and his team had been benchmarking since. "The machine itself took about one month to put together. Getting software compliance with the operating system was the toughest problem," he said.

Bryan said the other goal of the implementing the supercomputer was one of retaining IT graduates.

"The Centre for Advanced Systems Engineering here has had an inability to attract people to do higher degrees because they [graduates] get such good salaries in industry," he said.

"With industry sponsored projects, we can use the sponsorships to pay for students' scholarships. Industry also gives us topical projects which give students relevant experience," he said.

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