Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Workstations Deliver Fast Answers to Earth's Mysteries

Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Workstations Deliver Fast Answers to Earth's Mysteries

Article excerpt

The events that happen on the Earth's crust result from slow movements occuring deep in our planet's interior. At Harvard University, researchers simulate these movements through 3D models to better understand and predict plate tectonics--the movement of the 12 plates that comprise the Earth's surface. Armed with an understanding of such movement, other researchers can proceed with projects that may help predict natural catastrophes like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

"Small, powerful workstations in a client/server configuration are key to our efforts," says Richard O'Connell, professor of geophysics in Harvard's Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. "They provide not only graphics, but also the number-crunching capabilities required in any modeling scenario. Previously, such power was very costly and available only through much larger computers. Equally important, the workstation network gives us access to information generated by other researchers. Overall, we are able to proceed almost 50 times faster because of the workstations."

* Slow Movement

According to O'Connell, graphics and lightning-quick processing are the critical elements in any simulation model dealing with plate tectonics. In the Earth's interior, solid rock moves in miniscule increments. Over time, the rock takes on the characteristics of a fluid, creating thermal convection currents that eventually trigger events on the crust.

"We must 'fast-forward' this movement through computer models and simulations to reach any conclusions," explains O'Connell. "That's where number-crunching comes in. Eons are reduced to seconds on our SPARCstations. Then the results are displayed in sophisticated, 3D graphics. Without them, we would have to wade through hundreds of pages of numbers to get the information we need."

Unfortunately, building a 3D model and running a simulation on the department's previous minicomputer could rival the slowmotion rock movement in the Earth's center. The minicomputer could process the numbers, albeit sluggishly. Its graphics were even more meager.

A single terminal was available to the entire department. Whenever researchers needed to build a model or display results graphically, they had to go to another office housing the graphics terminal. If they were lucky, they didn't have to wait in line.

When Sun Microsystems, Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., introduced the SPARCstation family of workstations, O'Connell and his fellow researchers realized that they could place both number-crunching and graphics capabilities on each desktop. Asserts O'Connell, "In fact, a lot of the same convection codes that run on our Cray supercomputer also run on the desktop workstations. Plus, we have terrific graphics."

The increases in speed are due, in part, to Sun's implementation of distributed computing. Rather than assigning an entire project to a single computer, the network enables researchers to parcel out various tasks to a number of workstations. …

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