Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center retiring vaunted Blacklight computer |

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center retiring vaunted Blacklight computer

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is retiring the Blacklight computer.

In the world of supercomputers, faster is not always better.

“In physics, chemistry and cosmology, speed is always more important. There are other uses of supercomputers — everything from finance to genomics. Sometimes, memory is more important,” said Ralph Roskies, director of Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

In the five years it has been there, the center’s soon-to-be-shelved Blacklight computer’s vast data-sorting capability helped track early human migration; organized the genomic information of wheat; tracked irregular stock market trades; and studied national systems for live organ transplants. It even played Texas Hold‘em.

Blacklight can perform 37 trillion calculations per second. The country’s fastest supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee performs 17.59 quadrillion calculations per second.

“Blacklight is more about memory than about speed,” said Nicholas A. Nystrom, the center’s director of strategic applications and a research physicist at CMU.

Blacklight will be retired Saturday and replaced by Bridges — a machine with 12 times Blacklight’s memory capacity that will be built by Hewlett Packard. “Five years is a long time for these machines. A typical lifespan is 4.5 years,” said Roskies, a professor of particle physics at Pitt.

Instead of touting the center’s spiffy but unfinished replacement computer, officials there are focusing on Blacklight’s diverse list of accomplishments.

Until two years ago, odd lots — trades of 100 or fewer shares — did not have to be reported to financial regulators, who thought the trades involved only small investors and unlikely to affect the larger market significantly.

That assumption was questioned by professors Mao Ye of the University of Illinois and Chen Yao and Maureen O’Hara of Cornell University, whose research persuaded regulators at the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ to change their reporting requirements.

“More than 20 percent of the trading volume, among all stocks, was missing in the official count,” Ye said.

Blacklight entered the world of poker in April. Claudico, a program developed at CMU using high-performance computing on the Blacklight system, faced off against four of the world’s top 10 players at no-limit, heads-up Texas Hold’em poker.

The match at Rivers Casino ended in a statistical draw — a landmark accomplishment for any computer, officials say.

About the size of eight refrigerators, Blacklight is housed in Monroeville at a former Westinghouse Electric Co. plant. A $3 million National Science Foundation grant in 2010 paid for it.

Bridges, which will cost $9.65 million, will offer new computational capabilities in data-intensive fields, such as genomics, social sciences and the humanities. It will be completed in January.

“It is a much larger and more ambitious system,” Nystrom said.

Blacklight is likely to be sold, said Ken Chiacchia, center spokesman. The center does not ask buyers what they plan to do with the computers.

“I think many buyers want the parts,” Roskies said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].

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