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Super computing complex planned in Holyoke, Mass.

Aug 9, 2010

(NECN: Peter Howe, Holyoke, Mass.) - It's a $168 million shot in the arm for a city -- Holyoke, Massachusetts -- that badly needs one. A now-vacant industrial site in the western Massachusetts city was selected Monday by five universities for an advanced supercomputer center.

"It's going to enable us to solve a lot of problems that we simply haven't had the power to do,'' University of Massachusetts president Jack Wilson said in an interview with NECN at the UMass Medical School campus in Worcester. UMass is building the supercomputer center along with Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Northeastern University, with technology vendors Cisco Systems and EMC also playing major roles.

On Monday, after months of considering where in Holyoke to site the center, the universities picked a cluster of buildings on Bigelow Street near an industrial canal. The site is the former home of Mastex, a maker of military and industrial fabrics -- like car airbags -- that shut down last year. It's expected to take two years and $92 million in construction expenses to turn the Mastex site into a supercomputer center. Adding in the value of equipment that will be installed there -- including computers relocated from other sites -- brings the total value of the project to $168 million, according to Wilson.

This kind of computational firepower will allow researchers to attack daunting questions, Wilson said, like "learning how the human immune system works. Some will be looking at climate change. It will have the power to solve any kind of computational problem.''

What helped bring the universities to Holyoke is electricity. Computer data centers use huge amounts of it, and
Holyoke's municipal electric department can sell them power at around 8.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, half the cost of electricity old through utilities in Boston or Cambridge. The reason for the price advantage is Holyoke gets electricity from cheap nuclear-power contracts with plants like Seabrook and Millstone, and from hydroelectric plants on the Connecticut River -- the same water-power that drove Holyoke's rise as a mill city a hundred years ago.

"We're taking all of the things that made it a great industrial city a century ago, and we're using them to drive our 'green' high performance computing center,'' Wilson said. It's also an extraordinary level of collaboration among five very different public and private schools, which will use super-high-speed fiber-optic connections along the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 91 to move bits and bytes between Boston and Cambridge researchers' computers and the Holyoke data center. "We'll get more computing power for the buck,'' Wilson said, "and secondly, we'll have much more computing power than we could ever individually afford.''

With videographer Rich Mazzarella