The Origins of Canadian Supercomputing: The Visionary Role of Alberta

As part of Cybera's 25th Anniversary, we will be publishing stories throughout the year looking back at the major milestones of Alberta computing. This week, we explore the early days of supercomputing in Canada, and how the University of Calgary’s investment in supercomputers helped set the stage for Compute Canada and the National Research and Education Network.

In February 1985, the University of Calgary’s CDC Cyber 205 vector supercomputer blinked to life and began running its first application. The system was state-of-the-art for its time: 16 MB of memory and 5 GB of disk, and it could deliver a theoretical performance of 200 64-bit MFLOPs (million floating-point operations per second) and 400 32-bit MFLOPs. The Cyber 205 was designed for specialized computing operations, including hardware searches, matrix mathematics, and decryption. It was particularly of interest in Calgary for oil and gas work on seismic and oil reservoir modelling.

The University of Calgary has the remarkable achievement of being the first university in Canada to have a supercomputer on-campus (previously, universities had relied on access to privately-owned, off-campus supercomputers). In 1987, it would play host to the first Canadian Supercomputing Symposium.

How did it come about that this relatively young and small university would be the first to obtain such a powerful (and expensive) machine, at a time when most people had never even used a computer? The answer is a testament to the visionary leadership both at the university and in the provincial government at the time.

A staff member shows the wires at work within the Cyber 205. Image c/o University of Calgary

It Only Takes A Few Visionaries

Alberta’s Minister of Economic Development, Hugh Planche, at the launch of Cyber 205 in 1985
Rod Wittig was a math graduate from the University of Calgary, and working in its computing centre in 1984 when he was hired, along with 14 others, to run the Cyber 205. He credits computing experts at the university, including then president Norm Wagner and director of IT Ron George, as well as Alberta's Minister of Economic Development, Hugh Planche, and Control Data Corporation's president Bill Norris, for making the case for the supercomputer. “It only takes a few visionary people to really push the envelope,” says Wittig.

They foresaw that high-performance computing would become central to business and research innovation, and knew that if the university hosted its own supercomputer, onsite, it would give academics more opportunities to work with this evolving technology.

In a brief he wrote in 2017 to commemorate the history of the Cyber 205, Wittig noted that: “The legacy of [the] commissioned Cyber 205 is that it served as a pioneer, locally and nationally, to support academic research, which desired seriously increased computer power.

“Now we had the powerful computer, but next we needed a powerful connection to it.”

It may be unbelievable to many people today, given the University of Alberta’s current global dominance in machine learning, but there was a time when their researchers had to travel to Calgary just to use a supercomputer. It was either do that, or use a dial-up connection of 9600 Bps to connect the Universities of Alberta and Calgary. (At that speed, there wasn’t a lot of data you could send or receive).

The Beginnings of the National Research and Education Network

Cyber 205 decomissioning day in 1992. Rod Wittig is pictured in the dark suit, far right
After seven years in operation, the Cyber 205 was decommissioned, but the seeds had been sown — there was now a hunger for supercomputers in Alberta, and for remote access to this computing. In 1993, the University of Calgary partnered with a geoscience company in downtown Calgary to gain access to their new FujitsuVPX240 supercomputer, commissioned that year. Getting a strong connection between the university and this supercomputer became vitally important.

This urgency was being equally felt by universities and research institutions across Canada. Led by Brian Unger (a former computing science professor at the University and former president of Cybera) and other university representatives, these computing experts began to team up, and partnered with telecommunications providers to build a powerful network across the country. In 1994, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba came together to form WURCnet (the Western Universities Research Consortium Network).

Wittig became the first director of advanced computing and networking at WURCnet, which, among others, connected the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge at speeds of up to 10 Mbps. “At that time, we were leasing fibre from Shaw and Telus, which was very expensive,” he says. “We were operating hand-to-mouth until we could get more stable funding in place.”

Teaming up with CANARIE, and later, all the provinces of Canada, the basis for the National Research and Education Network was formed. It would go on to become the lifeblood of Canadian innovation. (We’ll talk more on how this network evolved in an upcoming post)

All it took was a few decision-makers with an eye on the future to transform Calgary (if only briefly) into a national technology leader. It is inspiring to think that Alberta could rise to the fore again, with just the right forward-thinking attitude!