GRUVIng on the fast track

Nov 14, 2002, vol. 25, no. 6
By Howard Fluxgold

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It may be a 1960s kinds of name, but SFU's GRUVI computer laboratory is definitely on the fast track of high technology. The name, chosen by students in the lab, stands for graphics, usability, and visualization and features a new network that is one of the speediest on campus.

“Our goal is primarily to create visualization software to enable you to look at a dataset from many points of view in real time,” explains Torsten Möller (above), co-director of the lab along with John Dill and Ted Kirkpatrick. “This makes what you are viewing seem like a real-time movie that you can manipulate with your mouse.”

The visualization software has a wide range of applications including medical education and diagnosis and industrial innovation, such as the production of fuel cells.

However, the huge size of the datasets requires a fast, state-of-the art computer network. “What we are doing is quite compute intensive, and requires state of the art computer hardware,” says Möller.

Moller is currently working with a 40 gigabyte dataset produced by the National Institute of Health in the United States that took about a week to download. It provides a three dimensional internal and external view of a man that can be manipulated in real time. However, it requires the GRUVI fast network because of its huge size.

The dataset can be used in medical education in the place of a textbook drawing since the various parts of the man can be studied and manipulated separately.

Another project Möller is working on in the lab is helping SFU industrial and computational mathematician Keith Promislow with his fuel cell research for Ballard Power Systems.

Promislow provides the mathematical algorithms that are then converted into a three dimensional, movie-like model of a working cell. This helps to determine if both the theory behind the cell and its construction will work before the cell is actually built.

And while the lab is state of the art, its costs are not. All the major network components cost about $60,000, a saving of more than $140,000, says Jovica Miodragovic, operations manager of the network support group in the centre for systems science. Using the free Linux operating system was a key saving.

Linux was chosen, says Möller, because “I think the software we are developing should be free for everyone. Linux is the model for this because it is a free operating system. I think a public university should prepare people to share intellectual knowledge.”

But there is also another reason, adds Möller: “Most students learn the Windows operating system and don't bother to learn Unix (Linux is a version of Unix.) However, big production houses, like PDI (the makers of Shrek) and Pixar (makers of Toy Story) are working under Unix. Familiarity with Unix makes our students more attractive to employers.”

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