The Northeast United States just experienced one of the region’s worst natural disasters. Fortunately, because of the confluence of modern computing power and scientific computing methods, weather forecasting models predicted Sandy’s very complicated trajectory and development with a precision that would not have been possible even a decade ago. Many lives were saved as a result of these predictions.
When scientific computing first emerged in the 1940s, it dramatically increased the ability of researchers in a small number of scientific and engineering disciplines—such as physics and aerospace engineering—to explore new frontiers in science and to change the paradigm for aircraft design. Today, advances in computer technology, the connectivity enabled by the Internet and the explosion of data, are making high-performance computing central to virtually all enterprises, ranging from cutting-edge science, such as analyzing the human genome, to computer-aided design and manufacturing, forecasting the weather, and even using data from social networks to deduce patterns useful for marketing and political forecasting.
Massachusetts is poised to lead this revolution in scientific inquiry and reap the economic gains associated with it. Academic research institutions, technology companies and state government are all working to advance the computational capability and research needed for the discoveries and innovations that lie ahead.
This effort is embodied and supported by a state-of-the-art, high-performance computing center tucked into the old mill city of Holyoke, Mass. Powered by a natural power source, the Connecticut River, the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) will be a model of efficient and environmentally sustainable design, construction and operations.
The MGHPCC, scheduled to open in November, will be operated by a nonprofit organization created by five of the region’s leading research universities—Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. The facility was financed by the participating universities with the help of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, and partnering technology companies, EMC and Cisco.
In conceptualizing the facility, the universities set as a goal collaboration among their institutions so they could take on scientific and societal challenges that may be too big for just one of even the world’s leading research universities. This collaboration promises to have a profound impact on both scientific inquiry and the region’s economy.
The collaboration has already begun. Earlier this year, the universities awarded $600,000 in seed grants to seven multi-university teams working on issues ranging from the marine ecosystem off the New England coast, to medical imaging, to advances in computer science and engineering. The selected projects span all three of the key facets of research computing: the use of computers as a tool for scientific discovery, development of application software that enables new types of research, and computer science research that points the way toward next generation “exascale” computer systems. In an indicator of the enthusiasm for the facility among our university researchers, 37 teams applied for grants.
The opening of the MGHPCC is accompanied by a flurry of recent activity related to high-performance computing in Massachusetts. For example:
• Gov. Deval Patrick has announced the creation of the Massachusetts Big Data Initiative, a series of initiatives to expand the state’s position as a world leader in Big Data—the collection and analysis of large amounts of data, a growing information technology need as companies seek solutions to easily handle data across a broad spectrum of industries and uses such as genomics, climate change, cancer research and healthcare cost reduction.
• The National Science Foundation has awarded funds to support a $2.3 million Major Research Infrastructure project that will fund the acquisition and operation of a computer system that will be shared among several universities and support research ranging from fundamental studies of matter and materials to monitoring and measuring the health of the planet. Computer science academics from the participating institutes will work with the domain scientists on this project, researching new systems level paradigms that can help make high-performance computing more readily used in everyday research workflows.
• Boston University has opened the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, which will drive discovery and innovation through the use of computational and data-driven approaches. The Institute’s creation reflects the “computational lens” through which scientists now look at the world.
All of this activity will drive economic growth. The region’s academic research community is not only an important economic sector in its own right, but it turns out the people, discoveries and innovations that will power the knowledge companies of the future.
At the same time, the MGHPCC is setting a new sustainability standard for data centers, which are typically huge users of energy. It starts with the center’s location in Holyoke, where the local power company, Holyoke Gas & Electric, generates more than 70% of its power from a dam on the Connecticut River. The facility is also designed for high efficiency—leveraging the cold New England air, for example—reducing by a factor of five the amount of energy for cooling, compared with a typical data center. The focus on efficiency and sustainability extends to every detail, including the reuse of demolition material.
Not surprisingly for a building envisioned, designed and used by scientists, the MGHPCC is also a living laboratory, outfitted with sensors and other equipment that will collect data that will be used to improve future building design.
The Massachusetts economy has always been driven by innovation. It was true in Holyoke during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when entrepreneurs built canals to harness the power of the Connecticut River to manufacture paper. It was true during the technology revolutions in computers, the Internet and life sciences. With the help of the MGHPCC, it will be true of the Massachusetts economy to come.
Robert A. Brown is the president of Boston University and chair of the board of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.