[CSG Winter 2007] Workshop on models and funding of research computing cyberinfrastructure


I’m in Los Angeles for the Winter meeting of the Common Solutions Group, at USC.

The first workshop is on building cyber-infrastructure for research. Bill Clebsch from Stanford frames the discussion by noting that this effort will make ERP implementations see cheap and easy, and he’s told his provost that.

There was a survey of the CSG membership on context for research computing.

In the survey 78% of the membership see value in having governance/oversight for research computing, though only 26% have such a body.

The top issue is data center facilities, more than networking. Storage is a major short-term concern.

The predominant support model is raw hosting, with the data center only providing floor space, cooling, and power.

About half of the membership do some central staffing for research computing, but most of that is monitoring facilities and power. 45% of the respondents are doing some support for the technology portion of grant development. 68% offer options for system administration support.

Cost is the major factor influencing central data center use, especially when it’s not part of the indirect costs.

In a panel on key drivers and changes, Tim Gleason from Harvard notes that the data center they built two years ago is now full, and they’re about to start building another 10,000 sq. ft. data center right behind it.

Jim Pepin from USC is talking about hosting, co-location, and condo-ing – in condo-ing they put together the machine into the cluster, but the researcher has the exclusive use of it. They’re seeing lots more use of that (as opposed to traditional hosting or colo), because of the complexity involved in building the machines. About 60% of the machines in the cluster are centrally owned, 40% owned by the researchers. Researchers can also trade cycle futures with each other. There’s a faculty committee of senior faculty that allocates the central resources annually. They’ve never had to say no to any request in the six years they’ve been doing this kind of allocation.

Jim notes that the design of networks for high-end research is very important, and that there is some tension between that and the desires of campus security to build barriers into the network.

Pat Dreher talks about a physics project that will be amassing an exabyte (1,000 petabytes) of data over the next ten years.

Pat quotes Larry Smarr as saying that networking is becoming cheaper than storage, and storage is becoming cheaper than compute power – this is the first such major shift in a generation.

The folks from Penn State note that for planning purposes a kilowatt of power per square foot is a good number for the next few years.

Bill notes that at Stanford they believe that in fifteen years they won’t be hosting anything (they’ll be buying the services) so that the data center investment should be thought of in that time frame.

There’s a bunch of discussion about whether every institution needs to build a lot of data center capacity, or whether there are ways to collaborate across organizations. Kitty Bridges from UMich points out that we need to learn how to be nimble on our feet and agile in our own collaborations. Jim Phelps from Wisconsin proposes that if we can offer ways to support virtual organizations for cross-institutional research that might be a place to start.

It’s pointed out that despite the talk of virtual organizations, most research today is performed by single PIs working alone with a bunch of grad students within an institution.

After the break the discussion moves on to talking about sustainable funding models for research computing.

Kevin Morooney is talking about the history of research computing at Penn State – until 1988 research computing was in the Research organization, but in 1988 it moved into the Center for Academic Computing. They maintained three FTE for research support. In 1997 they created a new shop, which now has 15 FTE and a director for doing high performance computing and visualization. Kevin points out that cyber-infrastructure is not only happening in the central organization, but all over the campus. Looking ahead he sees another round of central IT investment coming, with campus coordination that goes beyond what happens in central IT, but that it’s important that the central IT work at understanding and providing for the needs of faculty researchers while coordinating all these other conversations.

Bill Clebsch is talking about how at Stanford the institution is charging schools and other units for power, which has changed the paradigm for research computing – schools have had to pay for power for research computing. This year, for the first time, schools have to pay for space. In the last six months these factors, plus faculty realizing that they could spend more time on research than on the “plumbing”. They’re now looking at building a new data center.

One of the unexpected side effects of coordinating this activity is groups wanting to co-locate research assistants, which they hope will build a community around computational research.

Jim Jolkl from UVa is talking about their Linux clusters model – they contribute 20% of the cost. They charge $13.75 /GB/yr for storage, but they provide a Hierarchcical Storage Manager for archiving at no charge. Like everybody else, data center facility space is a large issue.

They hear a lot about getting people to support researchers. They’ve had a task force on computational science that’s recommended senior-level leadership, the need for grant development support, seed funding for promising programs, expert support for computational science (algorithms, data and security, visualization, etc).

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