computing

The Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT recently received a $27-million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a new, state-of-the-art supercomputer. The supercomputer, affectionately nicknamed “Stampede,” will be one of the world’s fastest.

Stampede’s creation highlights the continued trend toward computational sciences. These developments have made it clear that computing and software skills are no longer restricted to the domains of electrical engineering or computer science. The need to cultivate these skills in future students in all areas of study is on the rise, and UT is uniquely positioned to introduce an interdisciplinary program that would allow for the application of computing in other subject areas.

The idea is to create an interdisciplinary program, such as informatics, that would include a core of classes with a heavy emphasis on mathematics, probability, statistics, computing and software development. Incoming freshmen could go through this core in their first two years and could then branch off into another area of study. This other area could be anything from business to liberal arts, and students would use the computing skills they acquired to solve problems in that specific subject.

There isn’t a program at UT that directly teaches students how to apply computing to understand large amounts of data. A degree program like informatics would allow students to have the ability to solve real world problems through information analysis and data management.

Modern technology has allowed for the collection of large amounts of information across the globe but without the proper understanding, these troves of data are meaningless. Data must be processed to provide information that will guide research and future innovations. The new challenge we face today is how to manage and manipulate this data. An informatics program would provide the basic building blocks to solve these new problems.

UT already has a solid foundation on which this program could be built, as it offers many of the needed classes. The Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation in the College of Natural Sciences offers a plethora of interdisciplinary courses. There are also several small pockets of college-specific informatics programs on campus already that would greatly benefit if they were united. This would allow for a more streamlined way for students and faculty who are interested to get into applied computing. And of course, the advanced computing center offers unparalleled resources that students could use.

The beauty of such a program lies in the fact that it would be one of the only pure interdisciplinary programs out there. Its inception would allow for greater collaboration between departments and allow for further advancements in data-centric research topics.

However, an interdisciplinary program of this scale would have to overcome some major hurdles. All of the involved colleges would have to buy in and bury their egos to form an over-arching curriculum. And in time of budget cuts, money is always an issue in determining whether an informatics program would add value to the University. The addition of Stampede, however, shows that both UT and the NSF put great stock in the future of computational science.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior

Senior Operating Systems Specialist David Carver adjusts a wire to Ranger, the largest supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. Ranger will aid in the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment project’s goal to connect research scientists nationwide.

Photo Credit: Emilia Harris | Daily Texan Staff

UT is participating in a new nationwide project to connect research scientists with the supercomputers and other digital resources that make much of their work possible.

For the next five years the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, called XSEDE, will integrate advanced computational resources and services housed at institutions nationwide, making them easier for scientists to use, said Faith Singer-Villalobos, a spokeswoman for UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center.

The National Science Foundation funded the $121 million cyber-infrastructure, which includes the hardware, software, tools and services coordinated in this extensive network, said Singer-Villalobos.

“The digital services provide scientists nationwide with seamless integration to the high-performance computing and data resources,” she said.

Singer-Villalobos said researchers must submit a proposal for free allocation of resources, which will be reviewed by peers on the basis of their science and the impact it could have on society.

The National Science Foundation’s goal in funding the project is to enable scientific discovery by enhancing researcher productivity, said Barry Schneider, a program director in the Office of Cyberinfrastructure at the foundation, in a Texas Advanced Computing Center press release.

The project is run by multiple partnered institutions, including UT, and led by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Trish Barker, a spokeswoman at the center.

Barker said each site will contribute something different to the project, such as supercomputers, training, support, visualization expertise, data analysis expertise and software maintenance.

“The goal is to provide researchers all across the country, in many different fields, with supercomputers they can use, with data repositories they can access, with networking they can use to move things around from place to place and with tools for collaboration,” she said.

The new network will bring in new researchers and collaboration by solving incompatibility issues and eliminating technical barriers that prevent more effective communication, Barker said.

The project will expand on its predecessor, TeraGrid, which was also funded by the National Science Foundation and lasted for almost a decade, she said.

Jay Boisseau, director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center, said in an email to The Daily Texan that XSEDE has more resources and interfaces beyond high-end computing to facilitate a greater variety of science.

“[The program] will have a more balanced portfolio of digital services — massive data intensive computing systems and high throughput computing systems, different kinds of data storage resources, and more ‘science gateways,’” Boisseau said, referring to simplified user interfaces.

He said the move away from TeraGrid did not interrupt the approximately 10,000 users with active allocations, and those users gained access to the new expanded resources.

Boisseau said additional resources and simplified interfaces will attract scientists from a more diverse set of disciplines, allowing for multidisciplinary advances in science.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center leads user support activities for the project, which help researchers learn to use the new advanced technologies, he said.

“We provide high-performance computing systems, an advanced scientific visualization system and a massive data archival system for the national open science community,” Boisseau said.

He said the center participated in TeraGrid and has an even more involved role in XSEDE, since it has the resources and staff to support the projects.

“We want to help the U.S. maintain scientific leadership while enabling science as a global endeavor,” Boisseau said.

The new program will also focus on education and outreach to help deal with a declining number of people entering the scientific fields, said Samuel Moore, the education and outreach training program coordinator at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

By participating in research programs, students ranging from middle-schoolers to undergraduates gain analytical skills that benefit them in any future career, and especially those related to engineering, he said.

“We’re giving [students] these experiences and these options so they’ll be able to make an informed choice,” Moore said.

Moore said national and economic security rests on this technology and the ever-decreasing number of people who know how to use and maintain it.