We've created a monster

    Photo illustration by Emily Chow.

    At this very moment, humming away inside a data center on the Evanston campus is the 236th fastest computer on the planet. Its name: Quest.

    This computational beast works around the clock, chewing through molecular models and astronomical simulations.

    It computes at a scale and speed that most of us can hardly imagine. For example, your computer probably has two cores, maybe four if you really shelled out when you bought it.

    Quest has 4,032.

    The inspiration for this number-crunching behemoth came from the Vision 2020 plan, a report drafted by NUIT and university faculty in 2007. Leading up to that report, an NUIT committee surveyed a number of researchers on campus. More than a hundred professors who responded said the lack of computing resources at NU was limiting their research. Vision 2020, and ultimately, Quest, was conceived as a solution to that problem.

    Chemistry professor George Schatz uses Quest to make models of peptide amphiphiles, special molecules that can assemble into fibers that accelerate the healing of bones and nerves. Until Quest, nobody knew what these molecules looked like. Northwestern researchers made drawings and educated guesses, but their computers just didn’t have the guts to model hundreds of thousands of atoms.

    “Ultimately, we’ve always been frustrated because you’d really like to know where every atom is located,” Schatz says. “With Quest, we realized that there was the opportunity to actually simulate that structure in all its glory.”
    Before Quest, high speed computing at Northwestern was largely decentralized. Rather than invest in one big computer for all faculty to use, the university expected researchers to purchase their own individual machines. Now, researchers can contribute their grant funding to the Quest facility. In return, they gain priority access to Quest.

    Faculty funding will feed Quest and keep it growing. “The original cluster was 3,008 cores, and we were able to achieve the 4,032 via faculty investment,” says Joe Paris, architect for research computing at Northwestern. “With the next expansion of Quest, I think we’ll be ranked around 150th [in the world], which is very good for a research institution.”

    The university aims to bulk the beast up to 10,000 cores. But even in its infancy, Quest’s potential keeps professors who need that kind of power here at Northwestern, and away from computing rivals such as Purdue and University of Minnesota.

    While researchers like Schatz are interested in the supremely small, professor Vicky Kalogera’s mind is on the astronomically big. As a theoretical astrophysics researcher, she uses Quest with gravitational wave detectors to study distant bodies like neutron stars and black holes.

    “We would expect to detect up to a few tens of megaparsecs away,” says Ben Farr, a second-year graduate student researching under Kalogera. For the earthbound, 10 megaparsecs is about 191.7 quintillion miles, or 320 times the diameter of our galaxy.

    While science and engineering researchers are currently Quest’s primary users, Joe Paris is excited about the future of Quest for the humanities, too. An anthropologist can put the pieces of a shattered vase through a scanner, Paris explains. “You can run that [scan] through a complex algorithm that actually will reconstruct all those pieces to recreate the original shape.”

    Quest doesn’t care if it’s tearing through a black hole or a vase. Chilled and secured in a locked-down room, the computational colossus drones away. Terabyte by terabyte, Quest is helping Northwestern’s most curious minds solve the mysteries of the universe.


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