Mass. schools team up for supercomputer center

John Aubin is one of Holyoke’s more passionate supporters. The owner and developer of Open Square, a residential and commercial center in what was Holyoke’s first mill, said the computing center being built in his neighborhood will be a boon to Holyoke.

The city’s proximity to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley guarantees a well-educated work force, he said.

“There’s a tremendous pool of talent in western Massachusetts, and Holyoke is the geographic center of western Massachusetts,” he said.

Holyoke’s hydropower generated by the falls over Connecticut River’s 57-foot drop is a strong attraction, say Goodhue and others involved in planning the computing center, which has a generator on site that draws water power from a canal more than 100 years old.

Holyoke’s water power accounts for about two-thirds of locally generated electricity.

The relatively cheap electricity is particularly important for the computing center, which is expected to be able to use at any time up to 15 megawatts, the equivalent of powering as many as 15,000 homes.

The center helps meet a growing a demand for more powerful computers to do wider-ranging research, said Thom Dunning, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

“The driver is the complexity of scientific problems we’re encountering,” he said.

He cited molecular-level research, weather and climate change and health issues such as viruses and how infectious diseases affect populations. For example, researchers in Los Angeles are using a supercomputer to model the impact of an earthquake to help the city prepare for one, Dunning said.

In addition, rapidly increasing computing power “opens a whole new range of problems” that could not be solved by previous generations of computers, he said.

Goodhue said the Holyoke computing center is intended to capitalize on the “real tectonic shift” in the amount of computing power available for academic research.

“The use of machines has exploded on campus,” he said. “We need a more cost-effective way to house this.”

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