Bitcoin miners aid scientific research at CSCVR
The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Scientific Computing & Visualization Research (CSCVR) has received donations of two supercomputers that were built and used for mining Bitcoins.
Bitcoin is a digital currency that has garnered a lot of popular media attention recently. In addition to buying a Bitcoin, that runs for around $250 these days, one can also "mine" or generate it, using a powerful computer by solving a cryptographic puzzle. However, Bitcoin is designed in a way that the more mining that occurs, the harder it becomes to mine via an exponential increase in its complexity. So, a powerful computer today that could mine effectively, in a few months would be essentially worthless due to the rapid increase in Bitcoin's complexity. Now, there are investors that built very large supercomputers solely designed to mine Bitcoins — some spending even millions of dollars to build these systems — that are now largely useless, at least from the Bitcoin mining perspective. These machines are sitting idle or simply turned off.
In December 2014, the New York Times’ Laura Parker covered Prof. Gaurav Khanna’s novel use of PlayStations for his computational research in black hole astrophysics in a full length article. Two Bitcoin mining investors read the story and decided to donate their large supercomputers to the university campus for enabling research productivity further in the CSCVR.
The two donated systems are very well suited to enable research in the CSCVR. The key feature of both systems is that they are GPU-accelerated i.e. they use high-end video-gaming graphics-cards to speed up numerical calculations significantly. These make the systems excellent for a large variety of scientific applications. The larger system amongst the two was built in 2012 at cost nearing a million dollars and consists of 180 servers installed in 10 racks, integrated tightly over a fast network. Its replacement cost today could be in ballpark of $400,000.
The donor, Daniel Driscoll of San Francisco shares his thoughts on his donation: "This past winter during my morning commute, I stumbled across an article about a research project that recently used a networked super computer modeling the physics of black holes. Having grown up in the 80's next to the shuttle launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, I remain an ardent fan of all things space. What struck me as even more interesting was how Professor Gaurav Khanna had created this super computer from now derelict Playstation 3 consoles. Being now part of the game industry, I was all too familiar with the transition of Playstation fans to the new flagship, the Playstation 4, and had myself done a few experiments to understand the potential uses for the no-doubt countless number of old Playstation 3's likely going to the trash. One such experiment involved a private venture to explore and understand the Bitcoin craze of 2013, a venture that ultimately proved fruitless but left me in possession of not just several Playstations, but all also a large collection of what I had deemed a more effective array of server computers. Now that bitcoin has come and gone for the hobbyist farmer, Professor Khanna and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has provided me an opportunity to join those explorers I once grew up with, if only in my own small way."
The donor of the smaller system chose to stay anonymous; the university respects their privacy and therefore will not comment on any further details.
Prof. Sigal Gottlieb, the Director of the CSCVR remarks on how the donation would impact the research productivity of the Center: "The new computational cluster will be a tremendous addition to the resources of the CSCVR. The new system will triple the computational power available to us, significantly increasing our research abilities. All CSCVR members, and our students, will benefit from this valuable computational tool as we continue to expand the scope and range of the computational problems we are attacking."
Moreover, multiple new faculty that are joining the university would also be able to utilize the same resources to jump start their research programs. In the long run, the large computational resources of the CSCVR will help attract top talent (both faculty and students) to the campus and thus strongly enhance the campus’ research profile. College of Engineering and Campus’ IT services have worked hard and supplied resources to accommodate this significant sized supercomputer, and are committed towards ensuring full utilization of the system.
The CSCVR provides undergraduate and graduate students with educational experiences in supercomputing and fosters collaborative research in the computational sciences within the university and with researchers at other universities, national labs, and industry. Khanna serves as associate director of the Center.
See the full press release