Faster than Fiber: K-State supercomputer powers research across disciplines

BeoCat, housed in the Engineering Complex, is used for the research in multiple departments at Kansas State. (Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group).

When you open the door to the data center in the Engineering Complex, a breath of cold air greets you. As you walk further in, you begin to feel more heat. The room is occupied by 400 neatly stacked computers. This data center is home to Beocat, Kansas State’s supercomputer.

Dan Andresen, professor of computer science and director of the Institute for Computational Research, is one of few people involved in the computer’s upkeep.

“[Beocat] allows us to attack really big computational problems that just would overwhelm a personal computer and allows our students and our faculty to do things that otherwise [would] be impossible,” Andresen said.

What is a supercomputer?

“One of my standard questions, especially for the younger folks, is what makes a supercomputer ‘super,’” Andresen said. “The short answer is it’s big, and it’s fast. You can also say, if it costs a million bucks or more, it’s probably a supercomputer. But the key thing is, a supercomputer is like a great big pile of big [personal computers]. If you looked at the individual parts of a supercomputer, they aren’t that different than what you can buy as a workstation, but we have hundreds of them and they’re all tied together with really, really fast networks, like 100 times faster than Google Fiber.”

Dan Andresen, professor of computer science, shows the many parts that go into the supercomputer BeoCat. (Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group)

Andresen said Beocat helps solve issues for professors or researchers who need to run large programs. He said the computer shrinks runtimes significantly.

“For instance, last year, we worked with a professor in geography who had a program that he started off running in April and it was still running in October and hadn’t completed yet,” he said. “We said, ‘Oh, gosh, let’s see if we can help.’ And indeed, we put some of my students on and some of my staff on it, and we restarted the program using Beocat and we got him the results in a week.”

Multiple departments and individuals fund the computer’s operation. The Office of the Vice President of Research’s office and chief information officer supply funds, and research groups on campus contributed some of the hardware, Andresen said.

Andresen said Beocat is the most powerful academic supercomputer in Kansas, but it is average or slightly below average for a research institution.

The room Beocat is in is kept at 60 to 65 degrees to keep the computers from overheating.

“If the air conditioning went off, we would have to start shutting down machines within 15 minutes, because it would be too hot for the machines in there,” he said.

Who uses Beocat?

While Beocat lives in the department of computer science, Andresen said most of its use comes from researchers.

“Things like real time analysis of Twitter feeds to do automatic disaster analysis and figure out, ‘Hey, when a disaster is unfolding, a lot of times, the first thing people do is call 911, the second thing people do is start tweeting about it,’” Andresen said. “So by the time a fire truck pulls up to a fire, for instance, we can, in semi-real time, have sent them a digest of ‘By the way, this is everything we think is happening there that maybe wasn’t told over 911’ or something like that—about injuries and the degree of fire and whether anybody’s trapped and that sort of thing.”

Elizabeth Ploetz, chemistry research associate, said Beocat allows for better time and spatial resolution.

“We do computational chemistry, we kind of make movies of how molecules are moving with respect to time, so we can kind of investigate things they can’t investigate experimentally,” Ploetz said.

Paul Smith, professor of chemistry, said Beocat and computer models allow for cheaper experimentation.

“We were interested in the properties of molecules and how they behave and how we might predict how they might behave,” Smith said. “Computers are a nice way of doing that without spending all the money and buying the chemicals and doing the experiments. They’re a kind of cheap form of labor. So even though it’s expensive to buy the thing in the first place they can replace a lot of research done in a wet lab.”

Beocat is a resource for anyone at the university who might need it. Andresen said Beocat provides people with more than easy research.

“It’s not only something that researchers and scientists use on campus, but it’s also something that a lot of the students are learning how to do, which I think gives them a strong competitive advantage,” Andresen said. “Whether they’re a biologist or a chemist or a business person—we have people from the foreign languages department use Beocat. I think it’s really cool in preparing people for outside careers, whether it’s your standard jobs or another research side.”

Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.