Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Impressions of the tour of the National Computational Infrastructure 31 May 2013

Tour of the  National Computational Infrastructure

On the last day of Information Awareness month (31 May), a number of us (both librarians and IT professionals)  toured the  National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) centre  on the Australian National University Campus. It was a fitting finale to the end of this  month that had successfully promoted an increased awareness of  information management amongst both practioneers and  the wider community.

Professor Lindsay Botten kindly gave up his  Friday afternoon to give us a very informative tour of the ‘super-computer’ that crunches massive data (140 petaflops at peak performance) on  topics such as climate change and medical research. Partners drawn from  the university and government sector work together with massive data assets to visualise and model data in areas of real significance to Australia (and beyond: national water management and earth system science being another two areas. At the moment, Professor Botten advised the major contribution that research from NCI is making towards analysing the patterns of the Earth’s energy distribution in the Southern ocean. Combining this research with other analysis being undertaken in the area of climate-science, the research work and analysis will make a significant contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Climate Change due later this year.

The architecture of the building looks very 21st century – part of this because it encompasses several elements of modern super-computing. Personally I found it very exciting to actually learn how the entire closed system works. Massive cooling mechanisms are in place as the super computer generates great heat. We could feel the heat of the systems walking through the centre of the installation. The cooling plant reminded me of the pictures of the  Snowy Mountain hydroelectric stations – it was on a larger scale than you would think! I drew the analogy of the Star Trek movie centred around the spaceship of the aliens ‘the Borg’ when we entered the computer itself: I felt I had become part of ‘the colony’. Several others were thinking of Skynet in the Terminator series. While you may have one or two processor cores in your computer at home or work, the NCI has 57,500! A few gigabytes of memory may allow your computer to do enough processing – the NCI has 160 terabytes – and 10 petabytes of disk. As well as the storage, a lot of data is cycled onto tape and backed up as well, allowing the computer to focus on current tasks. While these figures sound like it will be able to cope forever, the pace of change is a major challenge – the computer will need substantial updating in three or four years to meet the rapid pace of change we are in the midst of! It was fascinating to see how far the technology has progressed and was a real privilege to have a look at such a facility in Canberra.

There was no doubt in the minds of anyone who participated that concepts being bandied about in the press (such as “Big Data”) are already upon us – in an almost mind-blowing way. And the NCI is an example of partnerships coming together to help Australia stay at the forefront and make a big contribution in high-impact research. Thanks to Professor Botten for  giving us the guided tour.

Here is some background for the perplexed amongst us:

The National Computational Infrastructure, Australia’s national high-end computing service, is an initiative of the Australian Government, hosted by the Australian National University. NCI’s mission, to foster ambitious and aspirational research objectives, and to enable their realisation through world-class high-end computing services. The cutting-edge infrastructure and internationally renowned expert support allow this, the only supercomputer of Australia, to be an integral part of world-best research. Professor Brian Schmidt (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics 2011) is undertaking a mapping project that could change understanding of astronomy in the near-future!

NCI’s advanced computing infrastructure, comprising a petascale HPC system, a large-scale compute cloud (primarily for data-intensive services), and multi-petabyte high-performance storage, is funded through programs of the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, while its operations are sustained through the substantial co-investment by a number of partner organisations including ANU, CSIRO, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, a number of Australia’s research-intensive universities, and the Australian Research Council.

If you’re interested in the NCI and what they are up to, be sure to look at their website for more background and information.

Karna O'Dea and Sean Wright

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