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WVU revs up computer resources to help move region forward

West Virginia University in partnership with the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, announced Tuesday the creation of one of the state’s most powerful computer clusters to help power research and innovation statewide. The announcement came as the University kicked off its inaugural  Research Week celebration.

The Thorny Flat High Performance Computer Cluster, named after the state’s second highest peak, joins the Spruce Knob cluster as resources. With 1,000 times more computing power than a desktop computer, the Thorny Flat cluster could benefit a variety research: forest hydrology; genetic studies; forensic chemistry of firearms; modeling of solar-to-chemical energy harvesting; and design and discovery of new materials.

Thorny Flat is the latest step in an ongoing regional partnership with the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, which has contributed greatly to the Morgantown-Pittsburgh corridor’s status as a hub for technological and scientific progress. The system will be housed in PSC’s machine room, and the center will provide routine maintenance and support for scientists using it

The cluster was created by  WVU’s Research Computing team in Information Technology Services with a nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure. Thorny Flat’s creation also underscores WVU’s commitment to ground-breaking research, which is being highlighted this week in the institution’s inaugural Research Week. 

In his latest  State of the University address, WVU President  Gordon Gee challenged the community to innovate so West Virginia can remain vibrant and competitive. “In a state that no longer manufactures products the way it used to, West Virginia University’s faculty, staff and students have no choice but to manufacture transformation,” he said. “We must pioneer progress.” 

Blake Mertz
Blake Mertz

Blake Mertz, assistant professor of  chemistry in WVU’s  Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, was the principal investigator behind the NSF grant. Mertz’s lab uses molecular dynamics simulations to model systems of interest in both biomedical and alternative energy research. 

In particular, Mertz is studying a peptide (a small protein) that could be used for targeted drug deliveries in cancer patients. Thorny Flat acts as a sort of computational microscope for observing key interactions between the peptide and the cell membrane surface. Mertz said these simulations can speed discoveries about the peptide, saving not only time and money in the lab, but also lives in the clinic. 

Also from the Eberly College, WVU  physicist  Zachariah Etienne will use Thorny Flat for simulations that model the physical processes involved when neutron stars collide. 

Zach Etienne
Zach Etienne

“Neutron stars are not simply large balls of neutrons, and we cannot create neutron star matter in laboratories,” Etienne said. The only way to understand how such matter behaves is to compare observations with computer simulations.

This kind of research “has the potential to revolutionize our current scientific understanding,” Etienne said. “Historically, such revolutions have led to incredible new technologies that help us diagnose and cure disease, and generally make our modern lives far safer and more comfortable than our predecessors.”

Thorny Flat, which will become available Tuesday (April 9), can accommodate a wide range of users, offering free access to researchers with on-demand computational projects and first-time HPC users. Researchers with more intensive, long-term computational needs also can purchase separate, dedicated time and resources. 

• Thorny Flat is theoretically capable of processing data at 428 TeraFLOPS, or about 1,000 times faster than a typical desktop computer. FLOPS, or ”floating point operations per second”, is a measure of computer performance.

• There are 108 total nodes available, containing 4,208 cores. For comparison, a high-end personal computer processor may have as many as 28 cores.

• Seven nodes have access to 21 specialized Graphics Processing Units that can benefit research into fields such as artificial intelligence.

For more information about Thorny Flat, including  specifications and queue information, visit the  ITS Research Computing site. For help determining its suitability for a particular project, contact