Sharc bait

Sharc bait

Through the University of Western Ontario, researchers are using high-tech bait - a powerful new computing network - to reel in the "Great Whites" of the research world
January 31, 2005
When SHARCNET was first conceived, the idea of developing Canada's most powerful academic computer was only second on the list of objectives. What was first? Clamping down on the exodus of Canada's best and brightest researchers who were streaming out of the county to other points on the globe in search of answers to complex research problems.

Now, just four years later, SHARCNET (Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network) has spawned some incredible groundbreaking academic research and discovery. But just as importantly, the new high-tech "bait" has helped to stop the exodus of talent and is drawing researchers and students from around the world.

The new talent and research has fully validated the vision of Michael Bauer, Chair of the Computer Science Department at the University of Western Ontario, and his colleagues. They believed you could create a high-performance computer from 1,000 computer processors clustered in groups—called Beowulf clusters—at different universities and linked together. The largest cluster called "Great White" is at the University of Western Ontario where Bauer is Chair of the department of Computer Science. When Great White was first installed, it was the fastest, most powerful academic computer in Canada, and the sixth most powerful academic computer in North America. It also made it onto the list of the Top 500 Supercomputer Sites in the world.

Bauer says SHARCNET's initial objective was to "jump the researchers forward with capabilities that didn't exist in Canada" at the time. Before SHARCNET, he says researchers either set the work aside or went somewhere else. "The people doing high-end astrophysics, or some of the materials work like friction or chemical bonding, went to Germany or the U.S. " he says. "One of the huge gains has been that a number of these people have stayed in Canada and we have been able to attract new people here." He says these people wouldn't have come if it weren't for the computational capabilities available with SHARCNET."

The research being done today is nothing compared to what will be possible as early as next year, which Bauer describes as an "exponential leap in SHARCNET's computing capability and reach." It will have eight times the number of processors, expand from seven universities and colleges to 11, and will be able to tie together 6,000 processors for a single application—up from 800 today. He says the massive expansion is being driven by researchers doing research in areas we didn't anticipate—such as bioinformatics and biomedicine, which have a tremendous amount of data for analysis.


The bid for what became SHARCNET was more than just an effort to land a high-performance computer for academic research. It was a quest to seed Ontario's universities and colleges with a supercomputing "culture," says Michael Bauer, Chair of the Computer Science Department at the University of Western Ontario. "It was a bit of a risk. A lot of the experts from large single-site computing centers challenged us on it," says Bauer. "But in the end, they recognized it was a valid risk to take and it has proven its worth."

That "worth" goes well beyond the basic economics of linking together the equivalent of hundreds of commercially available computers for about a tenth of the cost of building a custom "supercomputer." This was also scaleable, distributed, high-performance computing. That meant researchers could use as much, or as little, of the processing capacity as they required. And they could access it from one of several sites on the network. Instead of a supercomputer at one university, several universities got the equivalent of a supercomputer on their own campuses in a shared environment.

"The top one or two percent of researchers could use all this stuff in one place," says Bauer. "But there are researchers in economics and business and other disciplines and they don't need all the power, and all this work can be done simultaneously."

Bauer says there are currently 200 researchers and 400 undergraduate and graduate students using SHARCNET at the different campuses. "We've attracted many people," says Bauer. "One person was a researcher in Germany who came over for a visit and ended up being attracted by a SHARCNET chair. Another was a postdoctorate student from Australia who has stayed on as a faculty member at McMaster University."

Bauer says it's particularly encouraging to see a lot of good research being done in a number of areas. For example, a company in London, Ontario, is using the new technology for emergency disaster planning due to accidents like chemical spills. Another scenario involves tracking the spread of radiation from the detonation of a dirty bomb—quite timely he says in this age of terrorism.

The 2002 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in Toronto, which confounded medical officials with its almost mysterious ability to spread and infect, is another example of crisis-driven research that demonstrates the previously unimagined capacity of SHARCNET. At McMaster University, Mathematics Professor David Earn, with funding from the Canada Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), is using the high-performance computing network to model infectious disease transmission to explain outbreak patterns in populations of millions of people, and to plan and deploy mass vaccination campaigns.

"Professor Deborah Stacey, a colleague at the University of Guelph, is building a simulation of foot-and-mouth disease," says Bauer. "One of the things she can eventually do with SHARCNET is model the spread of foot-and-mouth disease and scenarios for the entire province of Ontario."


SHARCNET is supported by funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust, and the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund.

SHARCNET's industry partners include:

  • Hewlett-Packard (formerly Compaq)—computer processors.
  • Quadrics (formerly Quadrics Supercomputing World)—high-performance networking products and resource-management software.
  • Platform Computing—grid technology to optimize IT networks.
  • Nortel Networks and Bell Canada—data and communication equipment and links between sites.

Learn More

Visit the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network which links SHARCNET. It is operated by the Optical Regional Advanced Network of Ontario.