A former tobacco processing plant in this Southside Virginia city is now the home of a supercomputer that local and state officials hope will help attract more high-tech business to the historically tobacco- and textile-dependent region.
The Noblis Center for Applied High Performance Computing officially opened Friday in the recently renovated Old Belt No. 1 Building in Danville's River District.
"This (center) screams loudly and clearly that we are making a transition from the old to the new economy," Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders said at the official opening Friday.
Since December, the 32,000-square-foot building that once stored large amounts of tobacco leaf has housed a Cray XMT2 supercomputer tasked with analyzing large amounts of information created in the digital economy.
The supercomputer, about the size of three large refrigerators, is the first of its generation located outside of a government-sponsored facility, according to its maker, Seattle-based Cray Inc.
Noblis, a Falls Church-based nonprofit science and technology company, is using the computer to conduct research and solve problems in a developing field that technology experts call "Big Data" problem solving.
Big Data problems arise in situations where a business, university or government agency has large amounts of information to analyze to solve problems, said Will Mitchell, a software architect for Noblis and the Danville site manager.
"You have problems like that in the health-care space. You have problems like that in the national security space," he said.
Noblis does most of its work for federal government agencies, but the Danville center's goal is to research and develop better ways of analyzing data for public- and private-sector applications in fields ranging from health care to DNA sequencing to traffic congestion and cyber security.
"What the center is doing with this technology is really focusing on applications," said Gil Miller, chief technology officer for Noblis. "It is focusing on how we use technology to solve real-world problems."
Miller offered an analogy to give attendees at the opening a sense of how fast the Cray computer is. If every person in China — about 1.2 billion people — were linked by 16 connections each, the computer could map all of them in about one second.
The Noblis center in Danville won't be a major employer. It has a staff of three people now and plans to expand that to 15.
But officials in Danville hope the center will serve as a magnet for other technology companies that could help diversify the economy of the region, where the erosion of traditional manufacturing jobs has led to an unemployment rate chronically higher than the state average.
The Danville region had the highest unemployment rate in December among Virginia's metropolitan areas at 8.9 percent.
"We are certainly open to working with startup companies" that have an interest or need in supercomputing, Mitchell said.
Danville's industrial development authority acquired the building, formerly owned by tobacco leaf company Dimon Inc., and renovated it with a $910,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission and a $200,000 federal community development block grant. Local and state economic development officials recruited Noblis to the site.
It is located in an area of the city near the Dan River with numerous former warehouses and industrial buildings that the city has been working to redevelop. A building across the street from the Noblis center has been converted to condominiums, while the former Dimon Inc. headquarters next door is now a branch campus for Averett University.
Noblis is occupying about 8,000 square feet of the former tobacco processing building. Another tenant in the building is LiFeBaTT, a maker of lithium iron phosphate battery packs that moved its headquarters from Las Vegas in 2010.