Leading Supercomputing Center Marks Two Decades of Powering Discoveries Across Science and Engineering

Supercomputer Conceptual Image

Twenty years ago, a handful of computing experts with a hand-me-down Cray computing cluster began the journey of building the Texas Advanced Computing Center, or TACC, at The University of Texas at Austin into a research organization that today stands at the pinnacle of academic supercomputing.

On September 30, 2021, the center and its longest partners — the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Dell Technologies — celebrated the milestone with remarks on the growing importance of advanced computing and TACC’s role powering discoveries across science and engineering.

“Two decades ago, UT made a big bet on TACC and supercomputing. It’s an investment that’s paid off handsomely,” said UT Austin President Jay Hartzell. “And, given the proliferation of data science, AI and machine learning across fields and throughout society, there’s no limit to TACC’s impact over the next 20 years.”

Frontera Supercomputer TACC

Frontera is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. It is located at the Texas Advanced Computing Center and is supported by National Science Foundation. Credit: TACC

Throughout its history, TACC has powered many notable discoveries, aided society and enabled new approaches to answering humanity’s oldest questions.

  • Astronomers used TACC systems to analyze data and confirm the Event Horizon Telescope’s first-ever image of a <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="
    black hole
    A black hole is a place in space where the pull of gravity is so strong not even light can escape it. Astronomers classify black holes into three categories by size: miniature, stellar, and supermassive black holes. Miniature black holes could have a mass smaller than our Sun and supermassive black holes could have a mass equivalent to billions of our Sun.

    “>black hole.

  • TACC devoted more than 30% of its computing resources to supporting over 50 <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="
    COVID-19
    First identified in 2019 in Wuhan, China, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It has spread globally, resulting in the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic.

    “>COVID-19 research teams, leading to the first atomistic model of <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="

    SARS-CoV-2
    Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the official name of the virus strain that causes coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Previous to this name being adopted, it was commonly referred to as the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), the Wuhan coronavirus, or the Wuhan virus.

    “>SARS-CoV-2 and daily pandemic forecasts that continue to drive state, local and national policy decisions.

  • TACC supercomputers helped confirm the first observation of <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="
    gravitational waves
    Gravitational waves are distortions or ripples in the fabric of space and time. They were first detected in 2015 by the Advanced LIGO detectors and are produced by catastrophic events such as colliding black holes, supernovae, or merging neutron stars.

    “>gravitational waves by detectors at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (<span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="

    LIGO
    The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is a large-scale physics experiment and observatory supported by the National Science Foundation and operated by Caltech and MIT. It’s designed to detect cosmic gravitational waves and to develop gravitational-wave observations as an astronomical tool. It’s multi-kilometer-scale gravitational wave detectors use laser interferometry to measure the minute ripples in space-time caused by passing gravitational waves. It consists of two widely separated interferometers within the United States—one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.

    “>LIGO). The discovery opened a new window to the universe and lead to a 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

  • Physicists computed the behavior of “magic angle” bilayer twisted <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="
    graphene
    Graphene is an allotrope of carbon in the form of a single layer of atoms in a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice in which one atom forms each vertex. It is the basic structural element of other allotropes of carbon, including graphite, charcoal, carbon nanotubes, and fullerenes. In proportion to its thickness, it is about 100 times stronger than the strongest steel.

    “>graphene using TACC systems and proposed a theory that a decade later led to superconducting materials that could enable <span aria-describedby="tt" class="glossaryLink" data-cmtooltip="

    quantum computing
    Performing computation using quantum-mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement.

    “>quantum computing and more efficient electrical transmission.

Since June 2001, the center has grown from a dozen employees to nearly 200, with emerging expertise in data science and artificial intelligence, life sciences, science gateways and STEM education.

The center now operates two of the most powerful university supercomputers in the U.S. — Frontera, 10th fastest globally; and Stampede2, currently 35th — and more than a dozen advanced computing systems in total. Tens of thousands of scholars and students from across the U.S. use TACC’s supercomputers each year to advance every field of science from astronomy to zoology, and from the nano- to the cosmic scale.

“TACC’s growth has been remarkable and is a testament to the people who work here and the organizations that have supported us, notably UT Austin, UT System, the National Science Foundation, the O’Donnell Foundation, and Dell Technologies — our longest and most consistent champions,” said Dan Stanzione, TACC’s executive director and associate vice president for research at UT Austin.

Over time, TACC has become an integral contributor during emergencies, producing urgent storm surge simulations for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico making landfall and guiding first responders after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“TACC’s resources have been of extraordinary service to science, ranging from its contribution of resources to the COVID-19 HPC consortium, to its cultivation of new talent through the Frontera Computational Science Fellowships,” said Margaret Martonosi, the NSF’s assistant director for computer and information science and engineering.

Support for TACC has expanded in recent years to include federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as the State of Texas, the City of Austin, Microsoft and even Tito’s Vodka.

Over its history, the center has partnered closely with technology companies, notably Dell Technologies, to architect systems and develop tools for the academic research community.

“At Dell Technologies, we are incredibly proud to stand alongside UT and TACC as we continue to set the bar for high-performance computing,” said Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies.

The computational community has grown considerably during the past two decades, encompassing entire new disciplines, from digital humanities to computational oncology and deep learning.

“Supercomputing has become essential to research across all of science, engineering and medicine,” said Dan Jaffe, UT Austin’s vice president for research. “TACC has not only grown tremendously in its computing capabilities, but also as a research supporter and partner for the many investigators from around the world who use it. I am eager to see what the coming improvements in the machines and the TACC ecosystem will bring in the way of new discoveries and even more impactful contributions to society.”

The center celebrated its anniversary with remarks by Hartzell, Jaffe, Dell, Martonosi, and Stanzione.