The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven used to rely solely on a Linux-based high-performance computing (HPC) environment to process research data, but several researchers were unfamiliar with Linux or already used applications that were not compatible with that system. The university decided to deploy Windows® HPC Server 2008, which is providing a pilot user group with an easy-to-use system that supports them as they conduct advanced academic research.
Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (K.U.Leuven) is dedicated to research that explores scientific advancements and fosters the technological and cultural progress of the world. The university spends more than €230 million (U.S.$297 million) on research in science and humanities fields.
To support its more than 4,000 researchers, K.U.Leuven maintains a high-performance computing (HPC) environment that runs on a Debian Linux–based operating system and consists of 300 nodes and 800 cores. The HPC environment serves researchers in a variety of fields, from engineering to linguistics. “More and more, users need higher performance than is available with their desktop computers,” says Wim Obbels, HPC Project Manager for Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. “Our department receives requests for HPC accounts from all over the university—the spread is much larger now than it was even four years ago. Access to HPC is becoming a necessity similar to e-mail and Internet access, and our users will expect the university to provide it.”
However, the university realized that many researchers from a broad set of disciplines could not take advantage of HPC because the applications that they needed were not available for Linux or because the researchers themselves lacked the necessary skills to use Linux. These researchers had to invest the time to become proficient with Linux, set up their own HPC servers, or settle for slower results by running programs on their desktop computers. “We felt as though more of our researchers could boost their productivity if we supported HPC capabilities within an environment that’s more familiar to them,” says Obbels.
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven decided to explore its HPC options and deployed a cluster on Windows® HPC Server 2008. In September 2008, the university received the fully deployed cluster—which uses Dell Blade Server M600
||Expanding HPC to a greater number of users—those who have no Linux experience or are uncomfortable using it—will extend the quantity and quality of faculty publications … which is good for the university.
HPC Analyst, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
server computers with Intel Xeon quad-core processors—and established it in a test environment. Pilot users began to run computing jobs on the cluster in October 2008.
“Unlike most universities, we don’t have a universitywide Windows-based infrastructure, so it makes sense to keep the system separate for now,” explains Samuel Xavier-de-Souza, HPC Analyst for Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The university is planning to implement Active Directory® service in 2009, which would further integrate a Windows HPC platform in the future.
The university’s IT department wants to better understand Windows HPC Server 2008 before making it available to the entire university community. “Managing a Windows environment is new for us, so we want to gain experience with performing system maintenance, upgrades, and so on,” says Obbels.
For now, K.U.Leuven runs a variety of applications on Windows HPC Server 2008, including MathWorks MATLAB, BlackBox Component Builder from Oberon Microsystems, and WinBUGS statistical software, all of which help researchers, such as Joachim Vandekerckhove, make faster progress. “I have used the Linux cluster in the past, but I needed a Windows system because of the availability of certain applications,” says Vandekerckhove. “The applications run smoothly on the Windows cluster, which is helping me process psychology research data more quickly than I could with just my desktop computer.”
By expanding users’ choices for HPC, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven is fulfilling its goal of supporting research at the highest possible level. “High-performance computing has been a particular priority for this university since the 1970s,” says Obbels. “By increasing the options for our researchers and providing them with a Windows HPC Server 2008 environment where some of them are more comfortable, we’re helping further the university’s mission.”
- Greater ease of use. Pilot users are responding well to their new alternative. “I’ve found that Windows HPC Server 2008 is more user-friendly than I anticipated. I like that it provides a graphical user interface rather than just a text-based one,” says Vandekerckhove. “Features such as the HPC cluster management user interface are intuitive to use and show me where to go and what to do to get my jobs processed. On the Linux system, I have to either already know how to use the feature or ask one of our administrators.”
- Enhanced research capabilities. K.U.Leuven anticipates that adding a Windows-based option to its HPC environment would increase the number of people who use high-performance computing. “Expanding HPC to a greater number of users—those who have no Linux experience or are uncomfortable using it—will extend the quantity and quality of faculty publications and other such university performance indicators, which is good for the university,” says Xavier-de-Souza.
Adds Vandekerckhove, “My colleagues who are completely new to HPC environments will find Windows HPC Server 2008 easier to use than the Linux HPC system, unless they happen to be Linux enthusiasts.”
- Straightforward management. University IT administrators use the built-in management tools in Windows HPC Server 2008 for tasks such as checking node diagnostics and rebooting nodes. “My first impression of Windows HPC Server 2008 is that it’s a remarkable system with intuitive tools—and it should not require too much effort from the IT support side,” says Obbels.