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SDSC's Phil Andrews-Built for power

Champion powerlifter Phil Andrews, acting network director at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, makes sure the TeraGrid research network can crunch massive amounts of data.

Published 08/20/2003

By Terry Sweeney
Network World, 07/21/03

Phil Andrews is no stranger to heavy lifting. To prove it, he'll show you the latest rankings from Powerlifting USA magazine, which ranks him No. 2 in the U.S., after hefting 837 pounds at a competition in Las Vegas.

Small wonder, then, that the National Science Foundation ( NSF) asked this guy to oversee more than 500 terabytes of storage capacity for TeraGrid, which will be the fastest, most computationally rich research network in the world when it goes live early next year. Andrews clearly knows how to deal in big volume, whether it's in the gym or inside the San Diego Supercomputer Center ( SDSC) where he works, on the campus of the University of California at San Diego.

In addition to the supercomputing center in San Diego and one in Pittsburgh, TeraGrid connects two sites in Illinois - the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in downstate Champaign and Argonne National Laboratory, outside of Chicago in Argonne. It also connects to the Center for Advanced Computing Research at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The TeraGrid backbone between Internet hubs in Chicago and Los Angeles screams along at 40G bit/sec, with links from those two main nodes to the five sites operating at 30G bit/sec. Fiber capacity from Qwest and gigabit routers from Juniper make up the major pieces of the TeraGrid network.

Massively large data

TeraGrid will deliver access to 20 teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second) of computing power, facilities capable of managing and storing nearly 1 petabyte (1 quadrillion bytes) of data, high-resolution visualization environments and toolkits for grid computing. Researchers will tap the TeraGrid to run applications such as biomedicine, global climate and astrophysics research.

"This will move scientific research into areas it hasn't gone before," Andrews explains, because scientific modeling data can be massive.

Data is coming from a variety of sources such as microscopes, telescopes and sensors, all generating terabytes of data. The NSF's National Virtual Observatory already keeps its digitized map of the night sky at SDSC.

SDSC's role is to "crunch and store," Andrews says, meaning his organization will provide processing power and data storage. Inside TeraGrid's storage network at SDSC, three Brocade Communications SilkWorm 12000 switches will sit in front of the 500 terabytes of data. Using Fibre Channel over IP, SDSC should be able to write 10G byte/sec, while its tape drives will write at 1G byte/sec. That's at least one exponent above most storage systems.

Before now, computing grids were overlaid on existing networks. But because TeraGrid is being built specifically for grid computing, developers can ensure all components are appropriate and as powerful as budgets will allow, Andrews says. He predicts that this sort of distributed processing and storage across the WAN will be the model for future networks, whether research or corporate. "The future of grid computing is in providing these kinds of data services. We just have to figure out the best ways to ship so much data across the network," he says.

Power schooling

Andrews' background is well suited to the challenges ahead. He brings impressive academic credentials to bear with degrees from Cambridge, Purdue and Princeton. He's experienced with artificial intelligence, 3-D software, visualization, archiving, digital libraries and computational medicine. He's worked at the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center and is now high-end computing program director and acting networking director at SDSC, where he's been since 1997, and the site's TeraGrid lead.

While Andrews admits to difficulty in balancing work and personal life, he pursues some starkly contrasting interests to storage, computing and networking. For one, there's the competitive powerlifting, which he began after doing the hammer throw in college. "You've got to move the blood from the brain to the muscles," Andrews says.

In training for a December competition, he'll kick his weight up 15 pounds to 265, which explains the four boxes of protein and energy bars above his desk. He points out the window to an adjacent building - the UCSD athletic center - where he lifts about three hours a week when he's training.

And Andrews is a published poet, with odes to England's faded glory ("Stand Not Upon Your Order") or the wrong way to leave the house ("Today I Killed My Cat" ), for example.

What's true for stanzas is true for storage. "It's not hard to put all these terabytes together," Andrews says. "The challenge is to integrate it and make it really useful for as many people as possible." That's just the sort of heavyweight thinking TeraGrid needs.

Sweeney is a Los Angeles writer and editor who has covered IT and networking for 20 years. He can be reached at