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Supercomputer boosts math lab

Professor John Scherk; Image: Ken Jones

The premise behind the new math lab at U of T at Scarborough is simple: more computing power equals more opportunities for students.

The mathematical theories and equations to be tackled aren’t as simple -- slopes of curves, time and speed, limits, derivatives -– but it’s all in day’s work for an undergraduate math student. Solving these complex math problems requires a clever mind and the latest technology.

With 10 Sun servers -– high powered computers that deliver 40 gigabytes of memory -– UTSC’s new math lab will allow students to run large mathematical projects using professional computing software such as Mathematica, Maple and Matlab.

The lab is a joint venture between computing and networking services and Computer and Mathematical Sciences at Scarborough and was funded by the Academic Initiative Fund, a fund designed to assist the implementation of initiatives that arise from the academic planning process. Expanding research opportunities for undergraduates is one of the objectives of the Stepping Up plan as the university continues to work on improving the student experience at U of T.

“One way you attract the brightest students is by offering them excellent facilities,” says Professor John Scherk, chair of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at UTSC. “We did some focus groups this spring and the students responded very positively to the new lab -– not just the technology, but the space itself. They only share it with other math students so it’s got a common-room atmosphere.”

Collegial atmosphere aside, the super computers have awesome capabilities, allowing 30 to 40 students to run very demanding software simultaneously. “The students are working with massive amounts of data to calculate graphs and perform other functions,” says Philip Wright, director of computing and networking services. “They’re now capable of doing major math research that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, or taken forever to grind out the numbers.

In total, there are 118 computers in the new facility, with 10 of those allocated to the math cluster. These 10 computers are given special computing power that wouldn't have been possible on a stand-alone PC. Installed on these computers is a program called OpenMosix that aggregates all of them so that end users can use them as single machine with incredible memory.

“We wanted the students to be able to use the computers at any time,” Scherk says. “The server allows them to access the resources anywhere at anytime -- this means students can access the very demanding software night and day.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough