Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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dignitaries with computer
Photo by John Herrin

Big Red, Go

This summer, Indiana University's research computing infrastructure grew by an order of magnitude. And relatively speaking, procuring the fastest university-owned supercomputer in the country was the easy part.

The hard part is analyzing the three billion nucleotides in the human genome or processing billion-pixel images from outer space. The analysis and storage of such data takes a "Big Red", as IU's new supercomputer system is named.

This is the era of data-intensive research. As IU President Adam Herbert noted when he announced the Big Red acquisition, "Much of the scientific research being conducted today involves the collection of vast amounts of data which must be rapidly moved, stored, searched, manipulated, and analyzed." With a theoretical peak capacity of 20.4 trillion mathematical operations per second, Big Red brings the size and speed needed to serve scientific instruments that trace things from mobile elements of DNA molecules to mesoscale storm predictions.

Providing the technology for such explorations is one of IU's major life sciences research goals, and the new supercomputer is the central component of an overall science-enabling cyberinfrastructure that is funded by the university, the Lilly Endowment, and the National Science Foundation, among others. "Big Red will drastically improve the ability of IU's life scientists to analyze massive data sets and better simulate complex biological phenomena," says Craig Stewart, associate vice president of research and academic computing at IU. "An acquisition like this does wonders to attract and retain researchers who can harness this kind of power."

Big Red's support for life sciences will extend to the state and nation as well. The state of Indiana, which according to reports by the Battelle Memorial Institute and the Indiana Health Industry ranks in the top four states when it comes to the number and concentration of life sciences-related jobs, will use the supercomputer's services. And on the national level, Big Red will become the fastest supercomputer on the NSF's "TeraGrid"—a network of advanced computing and storage systems, visualization systems, scientific instruments, and data sources dedicated to scientific innovation and research in the United States.

So, if computers like this are for sale, why doesn't every major university have one? Money, yes, but it's also a matter of forethought, as entrepreneur Scott Jones, IU graduate and voice-mail technology pioneer, pointed out in a July 2006 op-ed article in the Indianapolis Star: "An acquisition of this magnitude does not just happen by opening your wallet and making a purchase. . . . A supercomputer of this scope and power makes sense only in combination with an information technology infrastructure and a sophisticated plan like the one that has been carefully developed at Indiana University over the past decade."

As part of that plan, Big Red will serve researchers in a variety of fields. Astron-omy professor Catherine A. Pilachowski notes that new cameras and imagers at the IU-affiliated WIYN observatory in Kitt Peak, Ariz., will produce many gigabytes (one billion bytes) of data every night. "We need fast computers with large and fast storage to process all that data into scientifically useful images," she says. "These tools allow us to explore how planets like Jupiter formed in the early solar nebula, one of the big mysteries in astrophysics today."

For more on Big Red, see


--Sean Pendergast