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High-Performance Computer Brings Billion Dollar Returns

© Matthew McFarland | Gensler

We all can imagine how many people have bought a high-performance sports car—in some cases shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars into an investment that is fast and sexy—thinking of the potential excitement and thrill of driving it. In the back of their mind (maybe), they are thinking its value might possibly increase as a collector’s item and, maybe, just maybe, they will make some money out of the deal (less the thousands of dollars they spend every year on maintenance).

The question being: can high performance translate into high returns?

Ten years ago, we started working with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) on the planning and design of a building that was to house the most powerful supercomputer in the world. We worked through many months of National Science Foundation (NSF) grant applications, programming, planning, design and engineering. And, throughout it all, the team built on the excitement that we were working with individuals at NCSA, UIUC and computer systems manufacturers on a building designed around an incredibly detailed and powerful machine.

Everyone involved with the project knew that this would have a major impact on the future of research around the world. No pressure.

After years of building construction, the Blue Waters computer was finally installed. On March 28, 2013, NCSA flipped the switch and the age of high performance computing on university campuses changed forever. The speed of modeling, virtualizations and simulations were accelerated and the time required to complete projects decreased from days and weeks to minutes and, in some cases, just a few seconds.

Student Impact

Before the start of the 2014 school year, the first year following Blue Waters going live, the enrollment numbers at the UIUC, particularly in the School of Engineering, increased. Was this just a coincidence, or did all the positive press being generated by the first work being done by Blue Waters help bring about these significant increases? On top of UIUC enrollment increases, the number of new engineering students at UIUC was significantly higher than what other top engineering schools in the country saw that year.

Here are the numbers: The School of Engineering saw a 19 percent increase in enrollment over the previous fall and the average test scores of those individuals increased by almost 3 percent. This leads us to believe that the enrollment increase, as a result of Blue Waters, is more than just a coincidence.

Economic Impact

On May 10, 2017, NCSA released a study detailing the current and projected economic impact of its Blue Waters project on Illinois’ economy. Like that high-performance sports car, Blue Waters and the building where it resides were expensive.

The report shows construction, deployment, operations and maintenance, and research grants have cost UIUC, NSF, State of Illinois, private, Federal and other Government investors just over $646 million (projected out through 2019). During the same period, the impact of Blue Waters is anticipated to generate $1.08 billion in total impact on the State of Illinois’ economy and over 5,700 FTE jobs. And that’s just in Illinois.

© Matthew McFarland | Gensler

The impact of Blue Waters goes well beyond state boundaries. The resources of Blue Waters have had a direct impact on 21 other states through institutions with principal investigators leading projects completed on Blue Waters and research completed at Minority Serving Institutions. The impact also touches 26 other states, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). EPSCoR is a federal-to-state partnership program designed to enhance the capabilities of designated states and territories to conduct sustainable and nationally competitive energy-related research.

Looking at this broader impact, we can start to see the bigger picture of how this project is changing the entire game of research at major universities, while also positively influencing the communities they are built in.

Three key letters: ROI

The enrollment numbers and economic impacts are simple measurements of the returns on the investment of a high-performance computer system. But, we know there’s more to this.

Like rating the value of the sports car only on the money made when it’s sold, while ignoring the thrill, excitement and memories made driving it. Yes, these computer systems provide resources to the research community; however, we must be aware of the impact they have well beyond dollars spent and jobs generated.

Universities, hospitals and other research institutions utilizing high-performance computing are making advances in material sciences, global environmental studies, particle physics, energy systems, biomedical and genomic research that are having an influence on billions of individuals around the world. These impressions are truly priceless in the value they bring to society.

At Gensler, we are fortunate to complete high performance computer facilities for both higher education institutions (including UIUC, Princeton, and the University of Chicago), as well as medical research institutions (including Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital).

As architects, we pride ourselves on carefully planned and effective design and strive to have a positive effect on the individuals in the communities where we live, work and play. It is only through careful tracking and research that we can begin to truly comprehend the full impact we make for visionary institutions and clients around the world.

Bernie Woytek is a leader of our Critical Facilities Practice who collaborates with Gensler teams on technology-intensive projects around the world, as well as business development for potential future work. A Registered Architect and Gensler Senior Associate, Bernie is recognized for his strengths in addressing technical issues, engineering coordination and construction practices. In the community, he serves on the Oak Park Community Design Commission. Contact him at bernie_woytek@gensler.com.
Shannon Riddle enjoys working closely with clients and consultants to bring innovative design solutions to reality. Her knowledge of critical facilities and her ability to integrate highly technical spaces into projects brings a unique value to clients through the design process. Shannon has worked on a wide variety of projects across many different building sectors—each bringing their own challenges. Regardless of scale or type, she brings her extensive knowledge of building systems, a strong desire to know the client’s goals and a creative capability to collaborate in order to see a project to completion. Contact her at shannon_riddle@gensler.com.