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November 27, 2021

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Broken on arrival, UNLV’s supercomputer is now stronger than ever

Cherry Creek II at Switch


Cherry Creek II, UNLV’s 26,000-processor supercomputer, is stored at Las Vegas data company Switch, pictured here.

For a machine with a processing power equivalent to 9,000 laptops running at once, UNLV’s Cherry Creek supercomputer was anything but strong the day it arrived last November.

When Intel unloaded the highly anticipated machine, casings were crushed and electronic connections destroyed. The Intel crew assembling the whole thing at Las Vegas data center Switch, where it was supposed to be stored, boxed up the broken bits and shipped them back.

“We all made up our own stories,” said Joe Lombardo, executive director of the National Supercomputing Center, about what might have happened on the computer’s trip. “It must have fallen off a train. It must have fallen off a flatbed truck.”

Lombardo was never told exactly what caused the damage, but it was apparent from the first uncrating that it would be a setback. After several months of considering how to repair the computer, a donation to upgrade it, a bidding process, a second assembly process and rigorous testing, UNLV’s supercomputer was finally ready July 1.

Fixing the machine

At the computer’s uncrating last fall, it was obvious something was very wrong with the hardware. Some of the machine’s nodes — the metal units that store processors — had dents on the side two inches deep. Because parts of the hardware were warped, integral connections meant to power the machine couldn’t make contact.

Intel had two options: repair the parts or upgrade them.

By the start of February, Intel had decided to upgrade the supercomputer rather than fix it. They figured, Lombardo said, that because the technology had already advanced at such a rapid pace, it did not make sense to put what would soon be “old technology” back into the computer.

The crew salvaged what it could of the first computer (they now call that Cherry Creek I) and focused on building out a bigger, better machine, which UNLV calls Cherry Creek II.

But there was another problem. To update the computer to the specifications they wanted, Lombardo needed to find $545,000. It was around then he got a call from Switch CEO Rob Roy, whose company was already donating space in its state-of-the-art facilities to house Cherry Creek.

“He called me one afternoon and said, ‘Are we going to go for the major upgrade?’”

Lombardo explained the situation.

“That’s when Rob stepped up and donated the money,” he said.

Roy’s half-million dollar donation made it possible to add about 11,000 core processors to Cherry Creek. In all, the new version of Cherry Creek would have 26,000 cores, nearly three times as many processors as the first version.

In April, UNLV opened a monthlong bidding period to contract the installation of the computer. By June, the supercomputer was running but still had to be tested, a rigorous undertaking that added yet another month of downtime.

In July, nearly 10 months after UNLV announced the supercomputer, it was brought online.

Making it more powerful

When Intel awarded Cherry Creek to UNLV, the announcement came with considerable fanfare. UNLV already had one supercomputer — Eureka — but it only has 2,000-core processors.

Supercomputers are valuable resources for researchers and universities; instead of completing an equation with one laptop, a supercomputer user is completing an equation with the power of thousands of laptops, one for every processor. They can process complex equations and model intricate systems, like hydraulic fracturing and 3-D wind fields, with more precision and accuracy.

At 9,000 core processors, Cherry Creek I was already powerful. When tested in 2013, before it was brought to UNLV, Cherry Creek was the 400th fastest supercomputer in the world and 41st most energy efficient. In its newest iteration, at 26,000 cores, and equipped with cutting-edge, high-speed computing technology, Lombardo expects it to rise on the list.

“Some of these processors probably won’t wind up in laptops for two to three years,” he said.

Up and running

At Switch, Cherry Creek II sits in a room fenced off from the data center’s floor space by glass-panelled walls. Its series of black industrial racks are lit by red and blue bulbs. Walk into the room and a user will know the supercomputer is on by its sound; it produces a continuous drone, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The rule of thumb with a supercomputer, Lombardo said, is to turn it on once when it’s first commissioned and off only when it’s decommissioned.

Back at UNLV, where users can access the machine remotely, Lombardo’s supercomputing center is in the process of creating accounts on a library-system model. Faculty, students and staff can use Cherry Creek, which will accommodate hundreds of users, at no charge.

“One of the more important aspects of Cherry Creek is the enhancement of the educational experience here for the students,” he said. “Sometimes people ask me: Is this just for researchers? And it’s not.”

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