Supercomputing Center’s Blacklight Is Key Tool for Pitt, U.S. Researchers

Issue Date: 
November 21, 2011

Blacklight, the world’s largest shared-memory system that the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) acquired in July 2010, is proving to be a vital research tool for Pitt and other scientists and engineers across the nation.

Blacklight’s memory capacity is capable of holding three times the printed text in the Library of Congress. With 32 terabytes of memory, Blacklight’s technology is giving researchers the memory space necessary to help advance such research fields as astrophysics, geophysics, nanomaterials, machine learning, among others.

“As we expected, Blacklight has opened new doors to high-performance computation in many research communities, and it is rapidly becoming a force across a wide and interesting spectrum of fields,” wrote PSC scientific directors Michael Levine and Ralph Roskies in a statement released last week.

PSC is a collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Westinghouse Electric Company. It provides university, government, and industrial researchers access to several of the most powerful systems for high-performance computing, communications, and data handling available for unclassified research to scientists and engineers nationwide.

Acquired with help from a $2.8 million National Science Foundation award, Blacklight has already helped astrophysicists make discoveries about black holes. Because the storage system can hold an entire space snapshot in memory (which requires between three to four terabytes of data), researchers were able to discover “cold gas flows,” a phenomenon that contributes to supermassive black holes and that has been puzzling researchers for decades.

At Pitt, Cecilia Lo, the inaugural chair of the School of Medicine’s Department of Developmental Biology, and Michael Barmada, a professor of human genetics, have been using Blacklight to “read” sequences of DNA to better understand the order of nucleotide bases. A process that used to take two weeks now takes just eight hours with the help of Blacklight. In addition, Lo said, capillary sequencing can be accomplished in one to two weeks instead of years—a great advancement to genome studies.

Geophysicists have been able to use Blacklight to better understand magnetic reconnection, which can disrupt satellites, spacecraft, and power grids on Earth. Blacklight’s architecture is critical for this analysis, because “one run” (or, visual simulation) can generate 200 terabytes.

Blacklight has also been proven to be an effective tool for processing the unending text available on the Internet (natural language processing). The memory system’s rapid expression of algorithms helps computer scientists better understand the language and work with more complex language models.

To learn more about the PSC, visit