New Computing Center Will Deliver a Hefty Digital Punch

By Phil Sneiderman

Whether they’re studying distant galaxies or deadly diseases deep within human cells, “big data” researchers increasingly need more powerful computers and more digital storage space. To address this demand, two Maryland universities are preparing to open what is believed to be the nation’s sixth largest academic computing center, located at the edge of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center campus in Baltimore.

Supported by $30 million in state funding, the Maryland Advanced Research Computing Center (MARCC) will provide state-of-the-art digital processing power to a wide array of researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, College Park. It is expected to open in June.

Thanks to speedy fiber-optic cable connections to the participating campuses, big data university researchers will never need to leave their labs or offices to tap into the new computing center. “Everyone is going to be able to access the new facility on a remote basis,” says Jaime Combariza, an associate research scientist in the Krieger School’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and director of MARCC. “MARCC allows all of Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland to centralize their computing power.”

Jaime Combariza

Jaime Combariza, director of MARCC

For participating researchers, he says, the arrangement should lead to significant cost savings and greater efficiency. Rather than individual research groups using time, money, and space to create their own high-performance computing centers, all participants will share the costs of cooling, networking, and running the single center.

The shared equipment within the 3,786-square-foot new building will be capable of delivering a hefty digital punch. The setup includes more than 19,000 processors and 17 petabytes of storage capacity—that’s 17 million gigabytes.

Access to this computing power will be granted to Johns Hopkins researchers from the university’s School of Medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Whiting School of Engineering, and to scholars from the University of Maryland, College Park.

The users are expected to include astrophysicists who grapple with vast amounts of celestial data from powerful telescopes. Scholars from biology, biophysics, and materials science also have inquired about using MARCC for their research.

Even before it officially opens, 80 percent of MARCC’s computing power is already allocated.  But with enough land for four more identical centers on the lot at Bayview, there’s plenty of room to grow if the demand and funding materialize, MARCC administrators say.