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Northwestern's Quest for Knowledge is a Game Changer

High performance computing network helping scholars transform research

Highlights

  • Data-driven inquiries too big for normal computing find answers with Quest
  • U.S. population DNA data could be stored and cloned — twice — with Quest
  • Computing capacity is as much as 6,000 times the average laptop
  • Network is capable of storing 3,000 years of continuous music
  • More than 11,000 processors sort through data on pressing questions of our time

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The quest for knowledge at Northwestern University has led many researchers to a powerful new cache of shared servers, through which the most pressing questions about human behavior, the markets, the cosmos and our own genetic codes are being asked anew.   

Built in 2009 and managed by Northwestern University Information and Technology (NUIT), Quest is a high performance computing cluster made up of more than 11,000 processors connected by a high-speed network that has pushed a new door to discovery wide open. 

Whether sequencing whole genomes in the development of precision medicine or searching the farthest reaches of space for gravitational waves, a growing number of researchers are turning to Quest to store and process enormous data sets that are leading to answers that in the not too distant past were far out of reach.

“Quest has changed the game for science and engineering at Northwestern,” said Northwestern astrophysicist Vicky Kalogera, who used Quest to sort through data that led to one of the biggest discoveries in modern physics: the detection, here on Earth, of gravitational waves and binary black holes an estimated 1.3 billion light years away.  

Quest has changed the game for science and engineering at Northwestern.”

Astrophysicist Vicky Kalogera

In the coming years, Kalogera, the director of the Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), will again turn to Quest with unprecedented data- driven queries related to images of space taken by a 3-billion pixel digital camera and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction in Chile.

Northwestern is one of the institutions chosen by the National Science Foundation to analyze and compare images of the entire visible sky, taken a few times a week for 10 years, to learn about far-off galaxies, nearby asteroids and even dark energy. 

“Nothing like this has ever been done,” said Kalogera, the Erastus O. Haven Professor and associate chair of the department of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s called transient time domain astronomy, and the data sets produced in the analyses of these images of space will be much larger than any astronomy has dealt with in the past.” 

Quest is used in large-scale computing jobs that require sorting through huge amounts of data, solving a difficult numerical problem, or repeating the same calculation multiple times for different situations -- all tasks that even the fastest desktop computer could not manage.

So, how powerful is Quest? 

Quest’s current storage capacity is 1.5 petabytes. 

  • If the average MP3 is approximately 1 megabyte per minute on your mobile device, then Quest can store more than 3,000 years of continuously playing music, according to computerweekly.com.
  • Quest has more than enough capacity to store the DNA of the entire population of the United States and clone everyone — twice.
  • If Quest was full of the kind of image files typically stored on our smartphones, and we printed all the saved photos, their width measuring 8.5 inches across, the assembled prints would stretch around the equator more than two times. 

Quest is made up of 11,472 CPU cores or processors. 

Most modern laptops and desktops have 2 CPUs with about 4 to 8 cores each. Quest has 11,472 cores available for processing.

Network

Quest’s computation speed depends on a network not unlike a superhighway that is capable of moving 6.82 Gigabytes per second. That means if you where using Quest instead of your desktop to download a 30 Gigabyte BluRay movie, you would have to wait only 5 seconds to push play. 

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