Super power

Super power

Armed with exceptional speed and strength, a new computer network shows some muscle.
March 3, 2003

When it comes to high-performance computing, researchers can often succeed or fail by the power of their computers. In a world where speed and strength can make all the difference, supercomputers are the heavyweights that researchers from every discipline want in their corner.

The power and appeal of these computers lies in their blinding speed, which allows complex computational studies to be done in a matter of hours and days instead of weeks or months. But there's a small glitch. The computers are always in demand and they don't come cheaply.

Enter WestGrid and its role of becoming Canada's first comprehensive computer grid. WestGrid is a collaboration of eight institutions located in Western Canada that focuses on high-performance computing and advanced visualization. Supported in part by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the institutions use fast networks to connect high-performance computers, collaborative laboratories, and data storage facilities found in the facilities of its member institutions in British Columbia and Alberta.

By combining the strengths of recently upgraded computer centres into one seamless, networked super computer, WestGrid builds on the success of the Multimedia Advanced Computational Infrastructure (MACI) project that has, over the past four years, provided high-end computing resources in Albert.

"World-class computational infrastructure means that WestGrid researchers can realize world-class ambitions," says Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer, co-principal investigator of the MACI project at the University of Alberta's Department of Computing Science and one of WestGrid's founders. "The CFI has played a significant role in changing the research landscape in Canada by working with its partners to create high-performance computing resources that we could only dream of five years ago.Grid computing offers the promise of easy access to large computational and data resources for researchers working in large or small institutions. The goal is to mimic the power grid, where users can plug in and get resources whenever they need them.

"There are many problems in science and engineering that require more computing power than is available at any single institution," says WestGrid's Dr. Paul Lu, Associate Professor at the University of Alberta's Department of Computing Science. His research program focuses on systems software for parallel and distributed computing. "WestGrid is building both the computing and social infrastructure for sharing these resources. Shared high-performance computing can allow Canadian researchers to consider lines of research that they previously did not think were practical because they require too much computation."


Computers have been described as the "microscope" of the new millennium. In fact, many researchers in science, engineering, medicine, and the humanities consider them an even more universal and versatile tool than the microscope.

Traditionally, scientific research has been focused on theory and experimentation. But computers have created a third type of science: computational science. In recent years, funding from the CFI and other sources has provided $160 million to expand high-performance computing facilities across Canada. WestGrid is the latest example of the ongoing commitment to enhance Canada's computational resources.

In WestGrid, forward-thinking designers are creating a shared, geographically dispersed resource using the latest technologies to address the high-end computing needs of eight institutions in Alberta and British Columbia-the University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, Lethbridge University, Simon Fraser University, TRIUMF (Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics), the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts, and NewMIC.

Among the main benefits of the WestGrid system? It offers researchers a way to improve computer simulations of weather patterns, to model the behaviour of lifesaving drugs, to do complex astronomical calculations, and much more. Perhaps most importantly, it allows researchers to compete with work being done any where in the world.

WestGrid's goal is to serve the needs of a large multidisciplinary research community without re-inventing the same wheel at each institution. The result is a cost-effective solution with complementary shared resources at the participating institutions.


By sharing computer resources among diverse researcher disciplines and widespread institutions, a natural by-product results: strong inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary bonds and partnerships. The partnership that WestGrid has with the Canadian Space Agency is a prime example. The Agency has sponsored projects that will warn against extreme weather conditions in space, and will help researchers better understand the interaction between the Earth's magnetic field and solar wind-all of which can affect the operations of sensitive satellites circling the Earth.