UMass Dartmouth team that used PS3s to build supercomputers now turning to bitcoin mining computers

Bitcoin mining investors donate supercomputers to aid research at UMass Dartmouth

UMass Dartmouth's Center for Scientific Computing & Visualization Research (CSCVR) has received two donated supercomputers that were built and previously used for mining bitcoins. The donations will triple the computational power of the Center supporting its research related to ocean wave-energy converters, wind turbine blades, ocean model simulations, complex mathematical equations, stellar evolution, and black holes. 

"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," said UMass Dartmouth Mathematics Professor Sigal Gottlieb, who serves as Director of the CSCVR. "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." 

Bitcoin is a digital currency that has garnered much attention since its creation in 2008. In addition to buying Bitcoins, individuals can also "mine" for them by solving mathematical based puzzles. Bitcoin is designed in a way that the more mining that occurs and puzzles being solved, the harder it becomes to mine as the puzzles exponentially increase in difficulty. Many "miners" have opted to using powerful software and computers to solve these puzzles. 

However, a powerful computer today that could effectively mine will in a few months be essentially worthless due to the rapid increase in bitcoin's complexity. 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. 

Two bitcoin mining investors, one of whom has chosen to remain anonymous, have decided to donate their now idle supercomputers to further the research impact of UMass Dartmouth's CSCVR. Both systems are very well suited to enable research at the Center. 

"The key feature of both systems is that each is GPU-accelerated meaning they use high-end video gaming graphics cards to speed up numerical calculations significantly," said UMass Dartmouth Associate Professor Dr. Gaurav Khanna, whose extremely low-cost supercomputer built to study black holes and cybersecurity using 176 Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) gaming consoles, has enabled UMass Dartmouth's rank to soar to the top in the well-known RC5 cryptography challenge list. "These make systems excellent for a large variety of scientific applications." 

CSCVR's current computational resources are being utilized to solve complex problems in areas ranging from designing better ocean wave-energy converters to uncovering the mysteries of black hole physics. In the Mechanical Engineering Department, Dr. Mehdi Raessi's research group uses these resources to perform detailed simulations of fluids around solid objects which help design various devices like wave-energy converters and wind turbine blades. Researchers in the Mathematics Department share these same resources to develop new algorithms to solve complex mathematical equations. School for Marine Science and Technology Professor Geoffrey Cowles and Mechanical Engineering Professor Amit Tandon make use of the systems to develop ocean simulation models and make important predictions of ocean conditions around the world. Researchers in the Physics Department study fascinating phenomena related to stellar evolution and black hole systems. 

With the additional resources these new supercomputers provide, the CSCVR faculty and students will be able to perform these computations much quicker and potentially with higher accuracy, Moreover, it has the potential to jump start new research programs for the University's growing research community. 

The larger supercomputer of the two was built in 2012 costing nearly a million dollars and consisting of 180 servers installed in 10 racks integrated tightly over a fast network. Its replacement cost today to continue its bitcoin mining abilities would be around $400,000. 

Daniel Driscoll, of San Francisco, California, who donated the larger system learnt about Dr. Khanna's PlayStation 3 cluster from a December 2014 article in The New York Times. He was fascinated about the research being conducted at UMass Dartmouth using a networked supercomputer modeling the physics of black holes. 

"Having grown up in the 80s 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 supercomputer 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 I myself had done a few experiments to understand the potential uses for the no-doubt countless number of old PlayStation 3s 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," said Mr. Driscoll. "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 CSCVR promotes the mission of UMass Dartmouth by providing undergraduate and graduate students with high quality discovery-based educational experiences that transcend the traditional boundaries of academic field or department, and foster collaborative research in the computational sciences within the University and with researchers at other universities, National Labs, and industry. Dr. Khanna serves as Associate Director of the Center.

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