A Win-Win-Win Situation
With its elaborate canal system and profitable location along the Connecticut River, Holyoke, Massachusetts, was once the world’s largest paper manufacturer. Today, it is one of the poorest communities in Massachusetts with a poverty rate three times the state average and unemployment hovering at 13 percent. But that could soon change.
At a projected cost of $168 million, the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) will provide an infrastructure for research computing in life sciences, clean energy, and green computing—all powered by alternative energy from the Holyoke Dam—while also playing a role within a broad, locally driven effort to revitalize downtown Holyoke.
“This is the largest public or private investment in Holyoke in more than thirty years,” Governor Deval Patrick was quoted as saying in October 2010. “The new facility will be a magnet for innovation and job creation for years to come. We are investing in the future of this region.”
Touted as “a gateway for innovation in the Pioneer Valley,” the MGHPCC is being built by a groundbreaking consortium of educational, government, and industry partners, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and the University of Massachusetts, as well as two of the state’s top-tier technology hubs, EMC Corporation and Cisco Systems, Inc. Together, the universities have pledged $50 million toward the project, with Cisco and EMC contributing $2.5 million apiece, and Governor Patrick promising $25 million from the state.
Representing BU on the board of the MGHPCC consortium are: Andrei E. Ruckenstein, who serves as the president of the corporation, the chair of the executive committee of the High Performance Computing Center, and as the chair of the steering committee of the university consortium; Cara Ellis McCarthy, clerk of the board of directors; Tracy Schroeder, vice president for information services & technology; Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations; Glenn Bresnahan, director for scientific computing & visualization; John Barton, executive director for facilities management, BUMC; Stephen Williams, associate general counsel; and William Gasper, associate vice president for financial & business affairs, BUMC.
Azer Bestavros, a professor of computer science and co-chair of the MGHPCC’s education and outreach committee, says it is uncommon for a partnership to emerge among the private sector, academia, and the Commonwealth. “I’m not aware of another of its kind,” he says. “To have five internationally renowned institutions join together like this—it’s a rarity.”
But it makes sense. Each university currently uses its own network of computers, spending millions of dollars each year on electricity and individual infrastructure. So why not put those computers in a central space, share the costs, and take advantage of Holyoke’s cheap, green electricity? Bestavros hopes that, in time, even more industries and universities will come on board.
According to John Goodhue, executive director of the MGHPCC’s university consortium, the facility will have the potential to accelerate progress in modeling complicated systems like climate change and the human immune system.
Computers are invaluable scientific tools, Goodhue says, not least for the way in which they enable research to take place at speeds that would have once been unthinkable. Take, for example, the ways in which engineers design automobiles, airplanes, and bridges. “Instead of building physical models,” he explains, “engineers build virtual ones, which are less expensive and actually produce more accurate results. Design cycles are shorter, the quality of output is better, and you build fewer prototypes.”
Normally, the catch to supercomputers is that they require tremendous amounts of energy and generate a thousand times more heat than a laptop—a conundrum for those seeking to minimize their carbon footprint.
“The new facility will be a magnet for innovation and job creation for years to come. We are investing in the future of this region.”Governor Deval Patrick
A statewide search for an environmentally friendly location led to Holyoke. With its access to low-cost, green electricity from hydropower and its proximity to high-speed fiber connections, the city was an ideal spot. To minimize suburban sprawl, Goodhue says, the consortium chose to build the center on an old industrial site downtown. “While we had to do some cleanup before starting construction, it was clearly the better environmental choice.”
Construction on the LEED-certified structure began in summer 2011, and Goodhue expects the facility to be fully operational by the end of 2012. Once the center is up and running, he plans to develop an educational and training center as part of the operation, networked with local high schools and community colleges. And while the center itself will only employ about 20 people, Goodhue predicts it will leverage state and private resources to bring related businesses to the area. “We want this collaboration to benefit the city of Holyoke, too,” he says.