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Montana State Invests in Supercomputing for Research

Montana State University will spend a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation on major upgrades to computer systems used for research in quantum science, large data analysis and artificial intelligence.

An entrance sign sits on the lawn at Montana State University
Montana State University will use a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for tech upgrades to expand its computational infrastructure for research purposes.

The NSF awarded the grant to the university’s Research Cyberinfrastructure Core Facility, which manages advanced IT systems used for research in quantum science, large data analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies, according to a news release in January.

Coltran Hophan-Nichols, the facility’s director, said in a public statement that the new equipment will double the university’s computation capacity and give the university the most powerful high-performance computing capabilities in Montana.

“These are large growth areas for the university, and emerging areas of research are particularly demanding,” Hophan-Nichols said. “There is existing demand now, and we expect demands and workloads to continue increasing in the future.”

Hophan-Nichols said last month that the new equipment would be installed and operational during the first week of the spring semester. He noted that the new equipment will be able to complete tasks that used to require weeks of computer run time in a matter of days.

“Right now, many researchers have to limit the scope of what they are analyzing, but with these new resources, that won’t be the case nearly as often,” Hophan-Nichols said in a public statement.

The announcement said the university’s existing central processing units (CPUs) will be upgraded with processors that are twice as fast, and each new CPU-based system will have 1.5 terabytes of memory. The new system’s graphics processing units (GPUs) from NVIDIA are also “10 times more powerful” than the university’s old GPUs, according to the news release.

Hophan-Nichols said the upgrades will support the university’s efforts to expand research across disciplines, while allowing students to familiarize themselves with advanced computation tools. For example, the news release said, earth-sciences students will use the new system to learn how to manage and analyze geographic information systems data, while chemistry students will use it to practice computational chemistry, which can be used to predict chemical interactions and properties of molecules outside of a physical lab.

“There are a lot of different applications for this — emerging quantum science, machine learning, data processing, precision agriculture, biology and genomics, to name a few,” Hophan-Nichols said in a public statement.

He added that the NSF technology grant will be the first IT infrastructure grant Montana State has received in eight years and the largest cyber infrastructure grant it has ever received.

The investment coincides with heavy investment in advanced computer technology in U.S. higher education, particularly for artificial intelligence research. The University of Florida, for example, recently developed one of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

“This cutting-edge computing infrastructure will help to accelerate research,” Ryan Knutson, Montana State’s vice president of information technology, said in a public statement.