$5M expansion of Holyoke computing center planned by universities

HOLYOKE — The research universities which built the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center in Holyoke a decade ago announced Thursday a $5 million expansion to its computing capacity.

Computing power is as necessary to science today as a microscope for a biologist or a core bored into the earth’s crust is to a geologist, said John Goodhue, executive director of the MGHPCC.

‘Several thousand’ new computer servers are planned for the 9,000-square- foot facility on Bigelow Street between Cabot and Appleton streets, according to a news release. The center opened in 2012 at the cost of $165 million. One partner, Harvard University, completed a $1.6 million expansion of the center’s computing power in 2016.

It’s a facility that is already either the largest or among the largest academic computing centers on the East Coast and is already capable of moving a trillion bits of data in and out of the building ever second. That’s the equivalent of a couple Libraries of Congress every second.

“That’s a lot,” Goodhue said.

On Thursday, the center’s management promised to employ local electrical and mechanical contractors and to develop the next-generation workforce that can support future research computing operations.

Much of the work is already completed, said Goodhue. Contractors are Collins Electric and Harry Grodsky Heating, both of Springfield.

“We are almost ready to move computers in,” he said.

Designers planned for the center to be expandable. This expansion will take place inside the building and won’t require an addition to the building.

“We knew that we were going to expand over time,” Goodhue said. We built enough core and shell for a very long term need but we only filled about 60 % of it.”

The center said it hosts millions of virtual experiments each month, supporting tens of thousands of researchers around the world.

The new computing capacity is almost entirely powered by non–fossil fuel energy sources, according to the news release. That includes 67 megawatts of local hydroelectric and solar generation operated by Holyoke Gas & Electric.

Goodhue said the center is a few years away from needing to increase its power supply from the G&E.

The center was the first university research data center ever to achieve LEED Platinum Certification.

“Researchers rely on MGHPCC computing power to investigate how stars form, improve medical imaging, study ecosystem dynamics in New England coastal waters, and model the global risks of accelerating climate change, among many other impactful projects,” said MIT Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber, a member of the MGHPCC Board of Directors.

“Expanding the computing capacity at MGHPCC meets growing demand while heeding the imperative to perform this energy-intensive research with minimal environmental impact.”

Scientists are also using the computing system to lean how medications can interrupt COVID-19 at the neural level, or create artificial neural networks that speed up — from hours to minutes the calculations needed to predict earthquakes.

The computing infrastructure being added through the expansion is almost entirely powered by non–fossil fuel energy sources, the release said. That includes approximately 67 megawatts of local hydroelectric and solar generation operated by Holyoke Gas & Electric.

“In silico” computerized experimentation and data analytics have become powerful tools for knowledge discovery, according to the release. These tools take their place alongside theory, physical experimentation and observation.

“That so much science now relies on intensive computation is testament to the vision of our founding institutions and public and private partners who came together to create the MGHPCC more than a decade ago,” said Goodhue. “Their vision also correctly anticipated that research enabled by the MGHPCC would become foundational to the state’s innovation-based economy. The expansion helps maintain that position of strength and will allow us to further expand our horizons.”

For example, one researcher uses the Holyoke computers to create imaginary planets, worlds similar to Earth, and then imagine what light looks like bouncing off those planets.

“Gee, maybe those are planets that are more likely to have life on them,” he said.

Or looking at how plastic in the oceans hurt the lobster industry.

“Which is important if you are lobster fisherman and you are wondering if the oceans are going to be hospitable to lobsters,” he said.

The Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center was developed by a collaboration of Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, the state and private industry including Cisco and Dell EMC. The universities fund the ongoing operation of the data center, which is open for use by any research organization.

Just 20 people work at the center, Goodhue said. But 100 or more technicians work remotely maintaining the systems.

Westfield State University researchers train students in how to work on projects at he center and it sponsors programs with Girls Inc. in Holyoke and has its own Holyoke Codes program for middle schoolers, Goodhue said.

The Center pays Holyoke $80,000 a year voluntarily and also provides $10,000 a year ini scholarships to Holyoke students attending one of the member universities.

Goodhue describes the center as a sort of land-based ship with one whole floor devoted mostly to racks and racks of computers . As those computers work, they generate heat that needs to be carried away by water and disbursed from cooling towers.

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