My February, 2011 Missoulian InBusinessMonthly column
I spotted an article in the news last fall about the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center, and you know, I just had to look into it more. The term “supercomputing” isn’t normally said in the same breath as “rocky” or “mountain.” And the idea that the supercomputer was in Butte was curious, too.
Earl Dodd, the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center’s senior consultant, told me Butte is still the center of the mining world, but he feels that Montana could be another tech center of the West.
“Why can’t Montana be the fourth Silicon Valley?” he said to me. “A more clean and green Silicon Valley than the current tech centers in California, Massachusetts and Texas?”
And that’s the drive behind the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center: to bring Ph.D.s, post-docs and all the infrastructure of technology here to create an industry that spans the state, all connected with the resources in Butte.
The Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center was established as a nonprofit in early 2009, and is located in the Thorton Building in Butte. It leases office and equipment space from the Montana Economic Revitalization & Development Institute. The Butte location is the first in a planned supercomputing infrastructure across the state, leveraging what Dodd calls a “core competency” found in all of the cities in Montana.
“Butte is the mining hub of the world,” Dodd told me. “Missoula has the green angle, Billings has biofuels, there is clean energy in Great Falls and Cascade County.”
Dodd has 27 years of experience in supercomputing and high-performance computing, and has worked at IBM in its deep computing and supercomputing group. He’s originally from Dillon and has several degrees from Montana Tech in Butte.
Dodd and the RMSC were in the news last fall because they offered free or subsidized use of the supercomputer – called “Big Sky” – to businesses in the state as a demonstration of what it can do and what it can provide.
Running at 3.8 teraflops – which means it can do 3.8 trillion floating point operations a second – Big Sky can process visualizations of proteins and medicines, help project the course of a wildfire in 3-D, model the entire upper Clark Fork River basin and crunch large amounts of weather and climate data to find the best places for wind and solar energy development.
One of the biggest problems is the understanding of what a supercomputer can do for the general public.
“The typical Montanan can’t understand why their tax dollars are going to this, but it’s very important for the growth of the state in the high-tech sector,” Dodd said.
One business that took advantage of the expertise offered was Bison Engineering. Dodd told me that the company built its own high-performance computing cluster to use for engineering work. But it found out quickly that there is a lot of maintenance work, so RMSC stepped in to help.
RMSC’s original funding came from the 2009 Montana legislative session. RMSC also has revenue coming in from commercial clients, and is pursuing new customers and grants and foundation support.
RMSC’s business plan calls for self-sufficiency after five years, and it’s just beginning year two. Despite the recession, Dodd said, “we’re tracking well with our business plan.”
As he did in Butte, Dodd encourages municipalities in the state to form science and technology committees to get residents in the community to start thinking about technology and help drive innovation.
See Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center for more information.
Next month: RMSC projects in Missoula.