By: Eric Nakajima Issue: Resource Management Section: Academia
Ninety miles west of Boston, in one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, arguably the most significant public/private collaboration in state history between government, industry and academia is taking shape. Five of the state’s premier research universities, two global technology corporations and the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick are partnering to develop the state’s first high performance computing center. The center and related initiatives will strengthen the state’s position as the leading knowledge economy state in the nation and extend the reach of the Massachusetts’ innovation economy far beyond greater Boston.
The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC), which is currently under construction and scheduled to open at the end of 2012, will be a shared resource facility that will dramatically improve the efficiency and competitiveness of the universities. It will catalyze new research partnerships between faculty of the universities, helping them break new ground on critical scientific questions and better compete for federal research dollars. In the community of Holyoke, where the MGHPCC is located, the MGHPCC initiative leverages the existing assets of the city and region to become a focal point for innovation-based economic development.
The MGHPCC facility is being developed and managed by a nonprofit corporation established in 2010, by the five largest research universities in the state. The partners include: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts, Boston University, Northeastern University and Harvard University.
The building is being financed through investments by the five universities and contributions from EMC Corporation, Cisco and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The center costs approximately $95 million to build, with an additional $75 million of computer equipment to be located in the finished building. The universities are contributing $10 million each for the project, with $25 million invested by the state, $5 million combined from EMC and Cisco, and the remainder of the project financed through federal New Markets Tax Credits.
Once finished, the five universities will locate state-of-the-art high performance computers in the 90,300 square-foot facility, with up to 10 megawatts of computing power. The universities are shifting all of their current and future high performance computing from their campuses to the MGHPCC, which will dramatically improve the efficiency of their operations and save money. The center will also have university-industry demonstration space, to allow for unique research activities on-site and classroom space to provide on-site training and education extending from the K-12 level through community colleges and the universities.
Has Massachusetts Found the Collaborative Gene?
Massachusetts leaders from business, academia and government have often heard that the state is hampered by the absence of the kind of “collaborative gene” that makes Silicon Valley so successful. Whether true or not—and there are many people in the state who would agree—Massachusetts, through the MGHPCC initiative, appears to have discovered its collaborative gene. How did that happen?
In October 2008, MIT President Susan Hockfield invited a small group of leading business, academic, and government leaders to breakfast at Gray House on the MIT campus in Cambridge. In attendance were Massachusetts Governor Patrick, Cisco chairman and CEO John Chambers, EMC Corporation’s chairman and CEO Joe Tucci, University of Massachusetts president Jack Wilson, and Akamai’s president Paul Sagan, among others. At the breakfast, the leaders forged a common relationship and discussed their shared interest in reinvigorating the state’s innovation ecosystem through some still undefined collaborative effort.
Following that meeting, in January 2009, Susan Hockfield initiated a conversation with UMass President Jack Wilson about MIT’s critical need to expand and rationalize its high performance computing infrastructure. MIT had conducted a New England-wide feasibility study of the best locations to develop an integrated high performance computing center and settled on Holyoke as the ideal place. Holyoke had significantly less expensive electricity than elsewhere in New England, thus saving MIT millions of dollars in operating costs, and it had excellent broadband connectivity to Cambridge. MIT had been planning on building the facility itself prior to the current “Great Recession,” but was now looking for partners to share the expense. Necessity and the familiarity created through the breakfast had catalyzed the collaborative gene.
Once UMass and MIT launched their partnership, their planning efforts rapidly expanded to include other attendees at President Hockfield’s breakfast. Governor Patrick committed his economic development team to the planning effort, and Cisco’s John Chambers and EMC’s Joe Tucci enthusiastically joined the conversation. In turn, Boston University President Bob Brown committed BU as a third university partner in the project. President Brown turned out to be a key voice early on because he had led a previously failed effort to develop a multi-partner supercomputing center in Massachusetts while at MIT. All of the partners were keen to get it right this time.
In June 2009, project partners signed a letter of intent that launched an extensive planning process that would end with the selection of a building site in downtown Holyoke and an October 2010 groundbreaking for development of the center. The project planning phase took a shared commitment to collaborate and to project goals, further forging the working institutional relationships and understandings that made that collaboration real.
In less than a year and a half, the MGHPCC partners developed a series of goals and commitments that extended from university-based actions to inter-university research collaboration to partnerships with community leaders in Holyoke and Western Massachusetts to improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education and cultivate the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. One of the first shared goals of the MGHPCC partners was to build a green high performance computing center.
The MGHPCC is called the “green” computing center due to three significant qualities that differentiate this project from other data centers. First, the center is located in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a city with a municipal utility that manages a large hydro-electric dam that provides about 78 percent of the city’s electric needs with green power. The utility, Holyoke Gas & Electric, is uniquely entrepreneurial and is forward-looking in its efforts to expand renewable generation and deploy smart grid technologies on its system. Holyoke’s commitment to expanding the use of green power and efficient technologies gives the MGHPCC a critical local partner.
The second “green” commitment made by the universities was to pursue efficient and green technologies in the development of the center. The MGHPCC sought LEED certification and are currently seeking a best-in-breed standard for the efficient use of power in the building. Data center efficiency is typically measured by its power usage efficiency (PUE), where a PUE of 1 means every watt of power is being used by the computers with no loss of energy, and a PUE of 2 (which is common for many data centers) means two watts of power are used to get one watt of computing. The MGHPCC is targeting a PUE of 1.2, which will place it at a leading edge for major data centers.
Third, the MGHPCC is committed to applying its world-class research capabilities to “greening” the infrastructure and organization of the center itself over time. Leading computer scientists from all five universities have been involved in designing the computing center, and they will continue to optimize the facility through applied research in green storage, green networking, and data center management.
Massachusetts is fortunate to be home to many of the world’s finest research institutions, from MIT and Harvard, to Longwood Medical Area, to pioneering private companies like EMC and iRobot. Current research and development leadership will work to ensure that Massachusetts continues to out-compete other states for increasingly scarce federal research dollars and translate university-based discoveries into new innovative products or services.
Beyond the benefits of the shared-resource computing facility itself, the MGHPCC initiative creates a platform for improving collaboration across the state’s innovation pipeline. In June 2010, the universities held a joint New England Faculty Summit on CyberSecurity to discuss plans to establish a regional academic consortium on the topic and have since joined privately-led efforts by MassInsight to develop an Advanced Cyber Security Center in Massachusetts. In September 2011, the universities launched a $500 million collaborative research seed fund to support research collaborations, including faculty from two or more of the schools on topics in high performance computing. And, the universities have partnered with the Patrick Administration and leaders in the Holyoke area to launch innovation-based initiatives that leverage the advantages of the MGHPCC facility and the region.
Governor Patrick continues to seek ways that state government and policymakers can play a positive role in catalyzing innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship in the Holyoke region and statewide. Governor Patrick has led the state through the recession with a clear agenda focused on fiscal discipline and investments in education, infrastructure and innovation—and that focus has itself provided confidence to the private sector. Strong leadership from the state does not have to mean top-down solutions. Massachusetts does it differently.
The MGHPCC is focused on creating a world-class computing resource that will profoundly improve the competitiveness of the member universities, while improving the economy of the City of Holyoke and Western Massachusetts.
From the beginning of the project, officials from the City of Holyoke have been essential partners to executing the project. The former and current Mayors, Mike Sullivan and Elaine Pluta, and City Council have ensured rapid permitting of the project, while the Planning and Economic Development staff and Holyoke Gas & Electric have provided everything from technical support to the developers to management of the site demolition and remediation that ensured a clean site for construction of the facility.
Everyone involved in the project believes that the successful completion of the MGHPCC building provides world-class evidence that Holyoke is a great place to do business. If Holyoke is the best place in New England for MIT to be, maybe it will work for other businesses, too.
The MGHPCC project has also attracted new resources to Holyoke that will help it compete for business. In September 2011, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded $2.1 million to substantially modernize Holyoke’s downtown utility infrastructure with a new substation and cabling that will enable highly reliable transmission of enterprise grade power.
In addition, the Patrick Administration and the MGHPCC universities are partnering with the Holyoke region in three significant ways to improve the economic future of residents in the region. First, the MGHPCC universities have committed themselves to working with the Holyoke community to extend their education resources into the community. The five universities launched a planning effort with the Holyoke Public Schools, Holyoke Community College, and local community-based nonprofits to develop projects collaboratively. In September 2011, the first of what will be many projects at the center received a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Faculty from MIT and UMass—Amherst are jointly developing curriculum that will allow students in the Holyoke and Springfield Public Schools to use tablet computers to conduct STEM experiments using computers at the MGHPCC.
Second, many of the MGHPCC leaders, in particular MIT President Susan Hockfield and EMC’s Joe Tucci, immediately saw opportunities to enhance the Holyoke economy by developing the city as a test-site for innovative renewable and smart grid technologies, either from the universities or private companies. Through the diligence of Holyoke Gas & Electric General Manager Jim Lavelle and others, the MGHPCC project team kept focused on developing this radically-innovative concept. In November 2011, Holyoke hosted a major workshop including leaders from MIT, UMass, ISO New England, numerous companies and the Patrick Administration to launch this effort.
Finally, the Patrick Administration and its local partners at the MGHPCC and in Holyoke have sought to learn from and cultivate the entrepreneurial leadership that already exists in the region. Holyoke and Western Massachusetts are currently home to competitive start-ups, angels and venture investors at a greatly smaller scale and with less visibility than greater Boston.
Encouraging the growth of that innovation ecosystem is critical. In 2010, the Patrick Administration helped to seed-fund MassChallenge, a global start-up competition in Boston. MassChallenge was successfully marketed in Western Massachusetts, and a local company was a finalist in the 2011 competition. The Patrick Administration also seed-funded Idea Mill, a Holyoke-based entrepreneurship networking event that brought together for the first time technology leaders, such as iRobot CEO Colin Angle, with innovators from throughout the region. In October 2011, 150 people joined a daylong gathering that was the first of an annual self-supporting event.
The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center brought together a historic partnership between the state’s leading research universities, corporate partners and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In partnership with Holyoke and leaders throughout Western Massachusetts, the state is also building a local foundation to enhance the competitiveness of the region and better connect to the state’s innovation economy. In three years, Massachusetts has found the collaborative gene and set a solid foundation for continued global leadership of the innovation economy.