Men and a women pore over a supercomputer

The Living Brain

(Illustration by Chris Jones)

Cherry Creek was too much computer for UNLV.

Not for the university writ large, nor for the dizzying amount of research being done on the machine. This supercomputer is literally too big for UNLV’s National Supercomputing Institute inside the Science and Engineering Building. The floor couldn’t hold it.

Cherry Creek, in its current incarnation, is more than 45 cubic feet of raw processing power — 19 server racks, capable of holding around 3,000 pounds when fully loaded, standing about 7 feet tall, 2 feet wide, and more than 3 feet deep. Those racks hold 120 nodes between them, each node containing from 146 to 244 cores, or individual processors in a complete central processing unit.

Current-era iPhones sport about six cores. Cherry Creek’s current 26,000 is the processing power equivalent of about 4,300 bored teens listlessly swiping through Instagram.

Dimly lit server room

The Cherry Creek supercomputer could hit one million cores within the next five years, which is the processing power of roughly 167,000 iPhones.

Solar collector with several mirrors

Each mirror on this collector measures one square foot, and each panel features 76 mirrors. (Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

Biggest Solar Collector Currently Used for Research

The solar panels that line UNLV’s Center for Energy Research stand like curious titans along Flamingo Road near Maryland Parkway, ready to worship the sun whenever researchers flip a switch. And while the two mammoth 70-by-48-foot panels are impressive, it’s the 50.4-foot tower that is the most puzzling. Sporting 11 10-by-10 octagon panels, each with 76 mirrors measuring one-square-foot , the collector focuses the might of the sun on a central turbine capable of spinning up to 42,000 RPMs. It once was housed at the Pentagon, and would have been in the path of the Sept. 11 attacks. Currently, center director Bob Boehm’s team is researching supercritical CO2 engines. It’s the first solar-driven CO2 engine to be built, using the sun to superheat gas to turn a turbine and generate power. It’s based on the Brayton cycle, the same phenomenon that makes jet engines work. It’s particularly suited for our desert environment not just because of our preponderance of sunny days, but because the engine doesn’t require water for cooling.

Created by Intel in 2014, the company announced it would be donating Cherry Creek 1.0 — at the time containing just shy of 10,000 cores — to a research university. Rob Roy, founder and CEO of the megalithic data center Switch, reached out to Intel, and the computer giant agreed to send Cherry Creek to the data center. Roy urged Joseph Lombardo, director of the National Supercomputing Institute, to enter the proposal process to secure Cherry Creek for UNLV.

Since then, the computer has been aggressively expanded, to the 26,000 cores it has today with plans to hit 100,000 cores in the next two years. Within five, Lombardo expects that number to reach a million. Or, about 167,000 ’Gram-perusing teens worth of iPhones.

The raw computing force may be impressive, but the way researches can access it is familiar. More than 230 researchers and students have access to Cherry Creek, but the interface for it can come from anywhere: a laptop, a tablet, or a phone. It will even text researches when it finishes their calculations. There’s no magical tech to the supercomputer; nothing about it that’s so far out beyond the ken of mortal and machine. The raw power is impressive, but. Cherry Creek’s sublime beauty is in its relentless efficiency in shaving off weeks, maybe months or more. For researchers, Cherry Creek is a time machine.

“It looks special, but software is software,” Lombardo said. “Most of it is built into Linux. Some of these jobs are long. We have jobs in chemistry that can run weeks. You couldn't do that on a laptop. Weeks on Cherry Creek would be years on a regular machine. The machine would burn up before it would converge on an answer.”

Men's restroom

This restroom inside the Thomas & Mack Center is the largest on campus. (Photo by Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Biggest Restroom

No surprise here. When a full house of 18,000 has 15 minutes during halftime to attend to business, the Thomas & Mack Center’s 1,380-square-foot men’s restroom at 3001H takes the (urinal) cake.

There are 38 projects being conducted on the supercomputer now, from exploring quantum control of chemical reactions to learning how exoplanets form and evolved, to the less ethereal but no less vital work, of divining optimal response systems for first responders.

Cherry Creek is on the verge of creating another key resource, too: money. Already ahead of the game thanks to Roy’s 10-year donation of space and power for Cherry Creek (which took a special order of the Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor – normally gifts are restricted to three years), the supercomputer has cycles to spare at a time when private sector companies are looking to get out from under the demands of owning their own hardware.

Lombardo has already sold time to Disney, which has its own computers at Switch, but sometimes needs extra processing power when butting up against deadlines in the massive task of rendering video. Effects-heavy movies like Star Wars and The Avengers are computer resource hogs.

Soon, Lombardo expects more companies, and even other higher education institutions, to sign up at prices for processor time that are competitive with Amazon Web Services, but significantly faster.

“What we do with those dollars is we turn it around and we buy new hardware,” Lombardo said. “We can't compete with the private sector, but we can make what we have better and bigger and stronger and faster. Something that took roughly 100 hours on [Amazon Web Services] took under six on Cherry Creek. [Disney] likes giving us money. They're giving it to a university who's only turning it back into something more they may need again. So they think they’re investing in their future.”

A future where Jedi and superheroes have tangible, real-world benefits? The Force works in mysterious ways.

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