Computer cluster helps plasma research at DCU


11 Feb 2004

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A €200,000 high performance computer cluster is helping a research team at Dublin City University (DCU) to explore more efficient ways to make microprocessors.

The project is one of the key areas of research being conducted at the €7m National Centre for Plasma Science and Technology, which is part of DCU’s Physical Sciences Department and funded under the Government’s Programme for Research in Third Level Institutes (PRTLI) scheme.

The Centre’s focal activity is basic research into plasma, the luminous ionised gas used in fluorescent lights and the latest must-have TVs. It is also a key ingredient used in the production of silicon microprocessors. Intel is one of the sponsors of DCU’s plasma research.

“The reason why there’s so much work going on in chip manufacturing is because the added value is so big,” explained professor Miles Turner, director of the Centre, which houses 25 plasma researchers. “You don’t have to tweak up the efficiency of Intel’s plant in Leixlip too much in order to justify your investment. They’re taking a silicon wafer worth about US$5 and when it gets to the end of the production line it’s got something like US$100,00 worth of chips on it.”

Turner’s team got a major boost last year when Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) awarded it €5m to fund Plasma Formation Applications and Controls, a project being undertaken jointly with the Process Control Group at NUI Maynooth. In simple terms, Turner hopes that the research will lead to semiconductor manufacturers being able to minimise wastage and the amount of test wafer production needed. This would in turn reduce production costs and help drive down processor prices.

“Chip manufacturers are finding it harder and harder to get where they want to go using the existing technology,” said Turner. “By bringing together what we know about plasma simulation with Maynooth’s expertise in process control, we’re hoping to add a lot of value. What we are really aiming for is more consistency in the [manufacturing] process.”

To support plasma research and a range of other mathematical and scientific projects, DCU recently took delivery of a high-performance cluster from Fujitsu Siemens. Costing approximately €200,000 the machine consists of 32 1.8Ghz AMD processors running in parallel.

“High performance computing allows you to link multiple processors/systems together and operate as one entity. It means academics can share processing power across campus to solve problems,” said James Finnerty, technical director of Fujitsu Siemens Ireland.

High performance or parallel computing is playing an increasingly important role in a range of scientific disciplines. Its massive computing power means that bigger and more complex calculations can be conducted much faster. Turner estimates that for some calculations the cluster will get results 100 times faster than if an individual large processor were used. He also notes that as processor technology starts to plateau the performance gap between specialised single processors and the ‘mass market’ Intel or AMD equivalent is narrowing all the time. This means that significant jumps in computing power can only be achieved by linking together or ‘clustering’ a group of processors.

By Brian Skelly