Supercomputing buzzing in Danville

Danvillian Phillip Hayes Jr. loved deconstructing and toying with his computer as a kid.

After earning a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University, he never expected to find a job in his chosen career field in Danville. That was until his parents called to tell him about the new Center for Applied High Performance Computing in Danville, which houses a next-generation Cray XMT supercomputer — the first outside a federal lab or university.

“This is amazing,” Hayes Jr. said during the ceremonial opening of the center on Friday.

Last June, state and city leaders announced that global supercomputer leader Cray Inc. and science, technology and strategy nonprofit Noblis would invest $2.5 million to establish the center, creating 15 jobs within three years. The Virginia Tobacco Commission supplied $3 million and the Governor’s Opportunity Fund gave $1 million to the project.

The supercomputer can address complex problems requiring access to large amounts of data, like in DNA sequencing, molecular science, fraud detection or even counter-terrorism. A software team at the center will work to develop beneficial uses the machine.

The computing center also plans to work with small companies on application development. The goal is to attract high-tech firms to the region, as it offers the private sector “unprecedented access” to supercomputing, as Noblis Chief Technology Officer Gil Miller says.

“We came to Danville because they get it,” Miller said on Friday.

Neal Noyes, executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, agreed and said no U.S. rural area has the new center’s computing capacity. Danville understood the innovation needed to develop software for the supercomputer is the innovation needed to compete in the global economy, Noyes said.

“This team working together with Noblis has built a center that screams loudly and clearly: we are making a transition from the old to the new economy,” said Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders.

The home of the computing center is the former tobacco warehouse Old Belt No. 1 on Bridge Street. To U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, this marks the start of a new generation of jobs and prosperity along the river, visually reminiscent of a once-thriving economy from textiles and tobacco.

For George Washington High School senior Matt Riddle, the center represents the opportunity for young people interested in science to work in Danville. The school robotics team member plans to go to Virginia Tech and would consider interning at the center.

For Danville parents Phillip Hayes Sr. and Wanda Hayes, it means their son, Phil, can work close to family and home.

“This is a Godsend place right here,” the father said.

Hayes Jr., a 2004 George Washington High School graduate, started work as a software engineer at the center a month ago. He hopes it can attract more high-tech companies to offer more science jobs in Danville.

“I think it’ll bring more people back,” Hayes Jr. said.

The center donated $5,000 each to Galileo and George Washington high schools for science and technology Friday.