UT, Microsoft collaboration aims to launch research into quick results

Raza Retiwala

The creation of Project Catapult will launch research into a new era of quick results. These servers use only 10 percent of the energy of previous technology and operate 40 times more quickly. 

Project Catapult is a data center, a system of servers, that UT professors and researchers will use to run calculations and software at a remote location. It is currently hosted at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Microsoft found that the new structure of the servers is incredibly efficient, using less energy and producing faster results than traditional data centers.     

“The Catapult deployment in TACC is focused on data center applications,” Derek Chiou said. “Your smartphone, or even your desktop, wouldn’t be nearly as useful as it is if there were no data centers behind it.”

Chiou is one of the original publishers of the paper on Project Catapult and an associate professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering. He is currently a co-lead of Project Catapult.

“There is a tremendous amount of research being done on Catapult within Microsoft,” Chiou said.  

Project Catapult was first used by Microsoft for Bing’s web ranking, an algorithm that calculates the validity of a site and determines its place in a user’s search results. Traditionally, web ranking and most data processing were done through massive server farms. Server farms were made up of large numbers of identical servers, which were used for analysis and storage.

Identical servers allowed for security in the event that one or two servers crashed. However, this structure was inefficient when the servers dealt with large amounts of different data. Project Catapult found a solution to this problem. 

Catapult works because of circuits called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). Users can adjust these circuits for particular situations, as they are not fixed into a position for a pre-configured task. 

This allows Catapult a number of advantages over the traditional data-processing servers. For one, more information can travel through the circuit at the same time, ensuring faster calculations. 

Catapult is the only project of its kind outside of Microsoft. In return for hosting software for UT researchers, the TACC and Microsoft are learning to build upon the project. 

“It is quite exciting for the scientists, engineers and the FPGA research computing communities,” said Bill Barth, director of TACC’s High-Performance Computing group. “The open research community doesn’t have a large, publicly available FPGA system.”

The Catapult server clusters are made of four racks, containing a total of 364 nodes. The room is numbingly cold, and the combined noise of the AC with the servers easily overcome conversational speaking. 

“They spend millions on the AC every year,” said Xiaoyu Ma, a graduate student working with Project Catapult. “We can’t let the servers get too hot.” 

Catapult is also unique for another reason: it continues with the trend of Moore’s law. Moore’s law dictates that the speed of a standard chip is doubled every 18 months, according to the journal Electronics. The computing industry has stuck to this rule since its creation. Recently, however, scientists have had more difficultly abiding by Moore’s law, and eventually physical limitations will be impossible to overcome, said Chiou. 

For now, Catapult is a step towards the continuation of Moore’s law. 

”Moore’s law is about to end,” Chiou said. “When exactly it will end isn’t clear.”