“Dude, you’re getting a Dell,” went the early 2000s catchphrase from the computer company’s commercials. This year, the entire University of Texas at San Antonio is getting a Dell – but with slightly more firepower.

UTSA’s supercomputer infrastructure is undergoing a significant upgrade thanks to a special grant from Dell Technology, which offered the school massive discounts on its specialty servers.

The new supercomputer cluster, which joins hundreds of smaller computers together, will replace the university’s former cluster called Shamu, boasting speeds up to 20 times faster and with 78% more storage. Installation of the new servers is currently underway.

“Supercomputer? It’s a mega-computer,” said Bernard Arulanandam, the university’s vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise.

Researchers like him wield the system’s staggering computing power against complex science problems, covering everything from wildfire simulations to modeling the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CyManII), a national research program, uses the supercomputer cluster to design new defenses against cyberattacks, like the recent breach of SolarWinds, which allowed hackers to access dozens of corporate and government systems.

Arulanandam’s own research deals with chlamydia, the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. An immunologist by training, Arulanandam uses the cluster to simulate cell interactions at the molecular level.

“It won’t necessarily create a vaccine,” he said. “But it provides the ability to ask more questions, more quickly.”

The research conducted with the system could furnish countless new technologies, said Kendra Ketchum, vice president for Information Management and Technology at UTSA.

“The outcome of what is developed using this infrastructure is unknown right now,” she said. “That’s the beauty of research and discovery.”

The 156 new servers in the cluster will each add about a teraflop of computing power – the equivalent of one trillion complex operations every second. If a human could do one of these calculations each second, it would still take them nearly 32,000 years to catch up. After the upgrades are complete, the cluster will boast a total of 353 teraflops.

The improved capacity will allow researchers to take further advantage of “machine learning,” a technique in which software trains itself to recognize patterns in massive datasets. It’s the technology Google uses for its image search system to automatically recognize individual breeds of dogs and cats or different styles of architecture.

The result is even faster analysis for researchers.

“Let’s say it took six weeks for the results of one set of data to come back to a researcher. This new cluster would deliver that in a day,” Ketchum said.

Efforts to upgrade the school’s aging supercomputer infrastructure began in earnest about a year ago. Within weeks, however, the pandemic took root, forcing such institutions as UTSA to pump the brakes on major projects.

Budget constraints suddenly forced the school to consider scaling back the upgrade or to phase it out over years. But Dell, which took part in the upgrade talks from the beginning, stepped in to offer discounts on its servers, as well as on storage and networking capabilities.

“We didn’t have to leave anything off the table,” Ketchum said.

When reached for comment, Dell declined to specify the amount of money involved in the discount arrangement, which is being referred to as a grant.

“It is important to us to support innovation in our local community,” said Adam Garry, Dell’s senior director of education, in a prepared email statement. “Dell Technologies has worked with UTSA on numerous data center projects throughout the years, so it was a natural fit when UTSA asked us to assist in its efforts to provide researchers with a robust platform to support growing research demands.”

Ketchum confirmed the discount had at least seven digits. “Let’s just say it’s a significant investment,” she said.

In honor of the assistance, the university plans to unveil a location on campus this year that will be named after Dell.

Disclosure: UTSA is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org. More by Waylon Cunningham

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