WBU group builds super computer

Release Date: July 30, 2009    

PLAINVIEW – Wayland Baptist University took a step up in the world of computing this summer. Dr. Scott Franklin, Associate Dean of the School of Mathematics and Sciences, led a project, with the assistance of two of his students, to construct a super computer.

Franklin, who did his Ph.D. work at Texas Tech and conducts summer research at Tech each year, came up with the idea after working on Tech’s super computer.

“I’ve done a lot of work in the past on high-performance computing machines,” Franklin said. “My Ph.D. being in applied mathematics is all about implementing numerical methods onto clusters or super computers.”

Wayland has an agreement with Dell Computers to rotate its computers every three or four years. Franklin thought it would make sense to take the old computers that were still in good shape and use them to build a super computer. The administration liked the idea and approved the project. Wayland’s IT department donated a server and Franklin began setting up the computer.

“Right now we have 18 machines,” Franklin said. “They are older, but they are still 2 gigahertz machines. They are still usable.”

The department purchased the shelving, an Ethernet cord and a fan to help dispel the heat produced by the computers and set up the super computer for less than $500, thanks to the donated PCs.

Franklin explained the technical term for the type of computer cluster he set up is a “POP, pile of PCs.” The cluster software that is being used is from Rock Software … therefore, according to Franklin, the computer is a POPRock computer. Franklin and his students also named the machine “Gobstopr” [sic].

With Gobstopr up and running, students can now focus on complex mathematical computations. The purpose of the super computer is to take these equations and break them down into smaller units. These units are shipped out to the various processors where they are completed, then brought back together at a central node where the individual results are combined to produce the final result.

Franklin’s students are learning to write code to break complex equations into what are called “parallel” pieces to be sent to the individual nodes. These complex equations are common when dealing with engineering projects and other scientific research. One project that Franklin has his students contemplating deals with the genetic sequencing of cotton.

“(Dr. Franklin) told us there is one kind of cotton, upland cotton, that is grown around here,” said Jarrod Alford, a junior pre-engineering major from Littlefield. “It is high-yield cotton. There is also Egyptian cotton that produces high quality cotton, but not as much of it. If we can look at the DNA sequences of both of these cottons and determine which genes are making the plant produce a higher quality or higher yield and if we are able to activate those sequences of genes, we should be able to produce much more high quality cotton.”
Franklin, who worked with Tech mathematicians on cotton research, explained that each cotton plant has around 52,000 genes. He said the key is to take a lot of samples from the two types of plants in order to compare gene sequences at varying points of development.

“You have these 50-something thousand genes and you are trying to figure out which genes are turned on and which genes are turned off at every phase, finding the differences between those two and then producing statistics from all those measurements,” Franklin said. “That’s a lot of number crunching, and we can speed that up if we parallelize those applications.”

While the project sounds intriguing, Franklin said this computer will primarily be used as a teaching and learning tool as students learn how to build these types of high-performance machines then work with them through program and mathematical applications.

Alford and Zack Gibson, who also helped build the computer this summer, are both pre-engineering majors who will transfer to Texas Tech next summer where they will work with similar machines and projects as they complete their engineering degrees. Students who participate in the joint pre-engineering program with Tech spend three years at Wayland and two years at Tech graduating with degrees in engineering and mathematics.