Universities plan $5 million expansion of Holyoke data center

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

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

According to a press release, “several thousand” new computer servers are planned for the 9,000-square-foot facility on Bigelow Street between Cabot and Appleton streets. The center opened in 2012 for $165 million. A partner, Harvard University, completed a $1.6 million expansion of the center’s computing power in 2016.

It’s a facility that’s already either the largest or one of the largest academic data centers on the East Coast, already capable of moving a trillion bits of data in and out of the building every second. That equates to a few libraries of congress per second.

“That’s a lot,” Goodhue said.

On Thursday, management at the center pledged to hire local electrical and mechanical contractors and develop the next generation of workers capable of supporting future research computing operations.

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

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

Designers planned that the center is expandable. This expansion takes place within the building and does not require any expansion of the building.

“We knew we would 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 and supports tens of thousands of researchers around the world.

According to the press release, the new computing capacity will be powered almost entirely from non-fossil energy sources. This includes 67 megawatts of local hydroelectric and solar power operated by Holyoke Gas & Electric.

Goodhue said the center is several years away from increasing its power supply from the G&E.

The center was the first university research data center ever to receive LEED Platinum certification.

“Researchers rely on the computing power of the MGHPCC to study star formation, improve medical imaging, study the dynamics of ecosystems in coastal New England waters, and model the global risks of accelerating climate change, among many other high-impact projects,” said Maria, MIT Vice President for Research T. Zuber, Member of the MGHPCC Board.

“The expansion of computing capacity at MGHPCC meets growing demand while addressing the need to conduct this energy-intensive research with minimal environmental impact.”

Scientists are also using the computer system to figure out how drugs can disrupt 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 that will be added by the expansion will be almost entirely powered by non-fossil energy sources, the press release said. This includes approximately 67 megawatts of local hydro and solar generation operated by Holyoke Gas & Electric.

Computational experiments and data analysis “in silico” have become powerful tools for knowledge discovery, according to the press release. These tools come alongside theory, physical experimentation and observation.

“That so much science today relies on intense computation is a 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,” Goodhue said. “Their vision also correctly assumed that the research enabled by the MGHPCC would become the foundation of the state’s innovation-based economy. The enlargement helps maintain this position of strength and will allow us to further broaden our horizons.”

For example, one researcher uses the Holyoke computers to create imaginary planets, Earth-like worlds, and then imagines what light looks like when reflected off those planets.

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

Or see how plastic in the oceans is harming the lobster industry.

“Which is important if you’re a lobster fisherman and you’re wondering if the oceans will be hospitable to lobsters,” he said.

The Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center was developed by a collaboration of Boston University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University and University of Massachusetts, government and private industry including Cisco and Dell EMC. The universities finance the ongoing operation of the data center, which can be used by all research institutions.

Only 20 people work at the center, Goodhue said. But 100 or more technicians are working on the remote maintenance of the systems.

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

The center voluntarily pays Holyoke $80,000 per year and also awards $10,000 per year in scholarships to Holyoke students attending one of the member universities.

Goodhue describes the center as a kind of land-based ship with an entire floor devoted primarily to computer shelves and racks. As these computers work, they generate heat that must be dissipated by water and dissipated by cooling towers.

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