NW Advanced Computing Partnership Looks to Tackle Big Challenges

The Northwest Institute for Advanced Computing (NIAC) is taking shape, with researchers and professors from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington brainstorming to identify a few large-scale strategic projects that could advance their budding partnership and the state of the art in computing.

At a coming out event Wednesday at the UW, leaders from the two institutions articulated their vision for a leading-edge computing research organization that draws on and complements the strengths of the university and national science laboratory, and educates the next generation of experts.

Doug Ray, an associate lab director at PNNL, says at maturity, the NIAC would grow to see perhaps 50 or 60 research staff on or near the UW campus, and UW faculty doing stints in Richland, WA. The NIAC has a physical presence already—a space for about 10 people in Sieg Hall on the UW campus. But it will be as much a virtual organization, with faculty from around the campus able to participate from their home departments, he says.

So what exactly is the NIAC going to work on? That question will be answered over the coming months through a series of workshops and open houses, meant to narrow down the focus from three broad starting points that share a common base in fundamental scientific computing, data management, and analysis technologies.

Those starting points are: advanced and future computing systems hardware, software, and programming models—essentially the next-generation tools for scientific discovery and simulation; scalable modeling and simulation design; and data-driven science and discovery.

On Wednesday, small-group discussion topics included high-performance computing applications at the exascale (computing systems that can handle 1018 floating point operations per second); graph analytics and network data analysis; urban science challenges; and systems biology.

Ray provided some example projects that could be addressed by these technologies from PNNL’s current research portfolio: real-time image reconstruction and analysis at extremely high resolution (three angstroms), potentially identifying new biological structures against which therapies could be targeted; atmospheric radiation measurements that look at the interactions of aerosols in clouds with sunlight; and the hosting of a 250 petabyte backup copy of what is expected to be the largest single scientific dataset on the planet, from the Belle II high-energy particle physics experiments ramping up in Japan.

Ed Lazowska, UW computer science professor, director of the eScience Institute, and a key link between PNNL and the university, put aspirations for the NIAC—unveiled early this year—in context of the “dawn of a new era of discovery.”

Data-intensive scientific discovery, he says, joins computational science as another arrow in the quiver for researchers, complementing the older methods of theory, experiment, and observation.

A proliferation of low-cost sensors and simulations is creating a torrent of data that presents enormous opportunities and huge challenges. Smart homes, smart cars, smart health, smart robots operating in unstructured environments—all are enabled by advances in areas such as machine learning, computer vision, and cloud computing.

“The big data revolution is what’s putting the smarts in everything,” Lazowska says. (He is leading a discussion on data-driven discovery at Xconomy’s upcoming public forum: Big Insight—Making Sense of Big Data in Seattle on Nov. 19.)



For data-intensive science to reach its potential, the onus is on computer scientists to build tools that can be used directly by oceanographers, biologists, geologists, and even sociologists and researchers in other fields, without having to wait for a data scientist to run reports for them. (He likened this potential bottleneck to the database administrators who sat between researchers and their data in the 1970s.)

In addition to large projects, the NIAC is aimed at fostering more one-to-one interaction between researchers at PNNL and UW. Vikram Jandhyala, UW electrical engineering chair and co-director of the institute from the UW side, says several initial collaborations have already started, or are scaling up from existing joint efforts, in areas including … Next Page »

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