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Computing Facility Receives $4.6 Million NIH Grant

May 27, 2010

The vast computing power needed to sequence genomes and peer into molecules depends upon powerful hardware that generates heat along with scientific breakthroughs. 

Now, a University of Kansas computing facility dedicated to life sciences research will provide the infrastructure necessary to enable a 20-fold boost in computing power thanks to a $4.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. What’s more, instead of throwing off yet more heat from the machines, the upgrade will lead to a 15 percent cut in the computer complex’s use of natural gas and a drop in its electricity need.

“This is a superb example of a win-win,” said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “Investigators on the cutting edge of biological research will have much more robust computing at their command and see that their research is energy efficient and sustainable — a priority for our campus.”

KU’s Bioinformatics Computing Facility, housed at the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center in Nichols Hall, will be updated and expanded through an NIH Recovery Act Limited Competition: Core Facility Renovation, Repair and Improvement grant. 

KU researchers will renovate more than 3,500 square feet of computing space and 2,400 square feet of support space. A sophisticated computer-rack cooling system will shuttle heat from computing equipment into the Nichols Hall boiler room, resulting in an expected 15 percent reduction in building natural gas use. Additionally, when outdoor temperatures drop below 45 degrees, a “dry cooler” will kick in, slashing electricity consumption by allowing cooling compressors to be powered down.

“We are confident that the renovated core facility will prove to be an exemplary centralized computational resource,” said Jun “Luke” Huan, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who spearheaded the project. “It is well-positioned to meet the ambitious data analysis needs of KU biomedical research and to dynamically respond to future computational challenges.”

Examples of research projects conducted at ITTC’s bioinformatics cluster include prediction of the misfolding of proteins that contributes to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases; sequencing of genomes; data mining of emergent chemical genomics databases; and development of approaches to uncover interactions between genes and proteins.

Such advanced biomedical research pushes computers to their limit. 

“The existing Bioinformatics Computing Facility is running at capacity and cannot be expanded further,” said EECS Professor Perry Alexander, acting director of ITTC. “It supports more than 50 research projects and 10 core service laboratories. Researchers from across KU participated in this proposal. It was a universitywide effort to increase high-performance computing capacity for an exceptionally diverse collection of researchers, ranging from life sciences to engineering, while focusing on sustainability and energy efficiency.”

For researchers across KU, the renovations also will increase access to computational resources by improving network connectivity between the facility and the rest of the Lawrence campus, the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., and external organizations. 

ITTC, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Office of Research and Graduate Studies, Molecular Graphics and Modeling Laboratory, K-INBRE Bioinformatics Core, Biodiversity Institute, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Design and Construction Management and Information Technology all contributed to the winning grant proposal

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