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Vol. LXI, No. 5
March 6, 2009
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Happy Birthday, Biowulf
CIT Celebrates Computer Cluster

Dr. Steven Fellini of CIT, Biowulf architect
Dr. Steven Fellini of CIT, Biowulf architect

“The NIH Biowulf Cluster: 10 Years of Scientific Supercomputing,” a recent CIT symposium in Lipsett Amphitheater, treated attendees to a decade’s worth of research using the system.

NIH chief information officer Dr. John F. Jones, Jr., in opening remarks, celebrated Biowulf’s 10-year anniversary, calling it “our largest activity supporting the scientific mission of NIH.”

As of 2008, Biowulf end-users included 19 of 27 institutes and centers.

A central supercomputing resource managed by CIT, Biowulf is a biomedical cluster—one of the largest in the world. Twelve conference presentations offered a smorgasbord of recent intramural research using the cluster.

A cluster is a group of linked computers that interconnect so smartly over a fast network that they effectively form a single computer. It’s a bit like a hive, each cell humming with bees working in concert.

But instead of honey, Biowulf, with its massive computational power, produces enough information to accelerate intramural research in many fields: imaging, genomics, bioinformatics, structural modeling, molecular dynamics and statistics.

“Each Biowulf node looks like your desktop computer,” explained Biowulf’s architect Dr. Steven Fellini of CIT’s Helix Systems staff. “Its power comes from the overlying software.”

The software supports more than 200 applications in all domains.

Dr. Ronald Summers Dr. Ad Bax
Clinical Center radiologist Dr. Ronald Summers (l) and NIDDK’s Dr. Ad Bax, an NMR spectroscopist

The first clusters were invented more than 10 years ago at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and were named Beowulf, after the Old English epic poem. Beowulf is a warrior who slays not only a monster and his mother; he also knocks off a dragon that’s unwise enough to mess with him.

So the cluster’s name is a play on words: Biowulf is Beowulf for bioscience. There is indeed a heroic element in its speed and scale.

“What makes a large cluster so special,” Fellini continues, “is that it lets you do in a few months what would otherwise take hundreds of years.”

NIDDK’s Dr. Ad Bax, an NMR spectroscopist, confirmed how vital Biowulf has been to his lab’s research in protein structure generation: “We completely depend on cluster computing,” he said. Without Biowulf, they would have had to wait for months for computations to complete: “We would have been dead in the water.”

Beyond the bench to the bedside, Clinical Center radiologist Dr. Ronald Summers presented a virtual colonoscopy project using noninvasive CT scans.

Thanks to Biowulf, the computer can find and colorize polyps in 3 dimensions without using optical (invasive) colonoscopy. The technology, currently licensed, is pending FDA approval.

With colon cancer the second leading cause of cancer death, and only 39 percent of Americans over age 50 getting screened, virtual colonoscopy may be a solution, Summers said.

Happy Birthday, Biowulf! NIHRecord Icon

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