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New research center at UF expected to improve powerful computers


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new national research center led by the University of Florida will explore technologies that could revolutionize high-performance computing, a field crucial in areas of science ranging from space exploration to weather forecasting to medicine.

The NSF Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing established by the National Science Foundation will seek solutions to the increasingly urgent problems confronting today’s powerful computers underlying science and business. The center’s goal is to develop new methods whereby next-generation computers can “morph” or adapt their internal hardware structure so as to best achieve the task at hand. That would make them faster, more energy-efficient, more compact and more versatile.

Alan George, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and the director of the center, explained that computer designers have historically faced a major dilemma.

They can feature special-purpose logic devices, which are extremely powerful but each is built for only one function. Or, they can feature general-purpose logic devices that can serve almost any function but do so much less efficiently. What’s needed is a combination, he said.

“What we need are technologies that can be both powerful and flexible,” he said.

The new center is the first U.S. research center devoted to reconfigurable computing and the first NSF center in the electrical and computer engineering department at UF. It operates as a consortium, with research conducted by participating universities and guided by federal and industry members.

Joining lead institution UF are George Washington University, more than 20 federal agencies and major corporations, and soon Brigham Young University and Virginia Tech. The center’s annual budget is expected to exceed $2.5 million when all four universities are on board later this year.

George said today’s high-performance computers are essential to drug makers, aircraft designers, meteorologists, stock market analysts and a host of others.

“If not for high-performance computing,” he said, “it would take years or decades to solve problems that we can solve in days or hours.”

But demands on these computers have become so numerous and complex that these machines, often composed of rooms full of servers, require ever more maintenance, air conditioning, electricity and special care to function. Scientists and business people also face increasing delays in their computations as the overtaxed computers work through a backlog of assignments.

Similar challenges are found with computers deployed for scientific and military missions. For example, satellites and space probes require increasing computational heft as scientists seek to glean more information from space with systems that are smarter and more autonomous. George currently has a project with Honeywell for NASA to build the fastest computer ever launched into space, and the new NSF center will support this effort, he said.

Reconfigurable computing could solve these problems by giving high-performance computers on the ground, under the sea, in the air or in space the ability to remake themselves for every task and achieve their full potential.

“Think of an integrated circuit as a big ball of clay. If you were a sculptor, you could model that clay into anything and everything you wanted, limited only by the amount of clay you have,” George said. ”That’s the basic idea behind a reconfigurable system. We have a tremendous number of digital logic gates, the building blocks in all computers, and we can combine and morph them into structures for whatever purpose we need at any given time.”

While basic research is a key component of the UF center, commercializing and deploying new technologies is another mission.

“Industry and government organizations are partnered in this center so they can shape the technology as we develop it and put it to use,” George said.


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