Excellence Awards: DIY supercomputer puts Massey on map

A supercomputer in your back room is surely the ultimate reassurance you have the IT infrastructure in reserve for the harder number-crunching.

A supercomputer in your back room is surely the ultimate reassurance you have the IT infrastructure in reserve for the harder number-crunching.

But for Massey University, its soon-to-be-baptised “Helix” cluster supercomputer is simply keeping New Zealand up with the play.

Developed by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution at Albany, Helix is reputedly 200 times faster than a common desktop. When completed late last year, Helix was judged among the world’s top 500 supercomputers, with a total of 67GB of RAM and 2.7TB of hard disk, making it twice as fast as its nearest New Zealand rival, one used by NIWA in Wellington. The supercomputer took seven months to build, following the development of other supercomputers at the university, and cost just $255,000. (Helix is a “Beowulf” machine, clustering 66 dual-Athlon 2GHz AMD processors under Linux Red Hat 7.3. Auckland University and AgResearch are among other supercomputer users.)

Research director Dr Chris Messom, who led its development, says Helix’s processing speeds, exceeding 200 gigaflops, will speed up research as data can be analysed quicker. “It put New Zealand back on the international map of supercomputing,” Messom says.

Helix joins Computers in Homes, asTTle and Wellington’s E-Vision Digital Media Centre as finalists in the “tertiary, community and commercial education” category of the Computerworld Excellence Awards.

Improving the self-esteem of the disadvantaged and IT-illiterate, and giving them the skills for better jobs, are two unexpected paybacks from the Computers In Homes project.

Says one participant: “My daughter can’t call me stupid anymore because I can [now] use a computer.”

The Wellington-based 2020 Trust, aided by the Ministry of Education and others, is supplying recycled computers to poorer families in a scheme modelled on Alan Duff’s Books In Homes project.

Selected families pay $50 for the old PCs, related equipment and net access on condition they train to use them and then educate at least one other person in their use. After six months the families can keep the PC but free internet ends.

2020 Trust chairman Ian Thomson says a Victoria University study found the programme achieved more than its original aim of improving the education standards of less-well-off children. Their parents have improved their own literacy and are using this to gain promotions and better jobs and are becoming involved in school and community activities.

Rather than damaging family life, as is often blamed on television, “family building” is taking place as members gather around the computer, discuss their experiences with it and use email as an extra communication tool, Thomson says.

Computers in Homes has seen four trials in South Auckland, Wellington and the East Cape, with plans for a nationwide rollout. Other government agencies and Maori groups are also using it as a model for their own schemes.

Auckland maths teacher Eric Waardenburg says the asTTle (assessment tool for teaching and learning) is so good, it is the first piece of educational software to excite him in 19 years of teaching.

Waardenburg, head of maths at Henderson High School, is to roll out the system across other West Auckland schools, and says it should raise educational standards nationally.

“It’s versatile, user-friendly, simple and not overwhelming,” he says.

The tool, developed by Auckland University and software company SolNet at the behest of the Ministry of Education, uses linear programming methods and heuristics and is written in Java. It helps teachers create educational tests in maths, reading and writing, both in English and Maori. It also allows comparisons between individual schools, departments and even individual students. By assessing how students or classes perform, the belief is schools can see which teaching methods are best.

Some 2000 assessment items, 400 teachers and 600 schools were involved in developing the software tool that can be used on Mac- or PC-based systems.

The first version, aimed at year nine students, was launched last July. A version for more mature students has just been launched. Further versions for other age groups and subject areas are being sought by the Ministry of Education.

Wellington’s E-Vision Digital Media Centre, meanwhile, is the last finalist. The centre aims to promote economic development and e-literacy through its range of workshops, presentations, seminars and exhibitions on various new economy issues and technologies.

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