Centre to be high-performance computing hub
By Colleen MacPherson
The way science is done is changing rapidly and, according to one group of researchers, a new Centre for High-Performance Computing will be critical to ensuring the University of Saskatchewan keeps pace.
“Computation-based research is now generally accepted as the third mode of scientific discovery alongside theory and experimentation,” said Ray Spiteri, associate professor of Computer Science and new director of the centre. “In fact, a lot of times computer simulation can replace physical experiments. Researchers are, in some ways, insisting on access to high-performance computing but as an institution we’re lagging behind in providing this access.”
Spiteri is part of a group from various disciplines that lobbied for a virtual focal point for high-performance computing. Situated within the College of Arts and Science but with informal ties to the entire campus, the centre received approval June 22 from the University’s administration, so “we can go ahead and organize events and organize people under this name”. The centre will have one office, he said, most likely for a technical person.
He sees the new entity initially drawing together researchers for collaborative opportunities like lectures or the co-ordination of course offerings. It will also serve as a virtual collection point for technical and research expertise in computer modelling, computer simulation, and teaching support, as well as being a hub for students interested in high-performance computing.
While computational-based research can be efficient and less costly by, for example, reducing the number of physical experiments needed to analyse or validate a theory, the drawback at the U of S has been that computer hardware, software and expertise are spread across campus with little overall management of computing resources, said Spiteri. The new centre will take on this role, saving scientists from having to build and manage their own computer clusters or using the computing power of other universities, he explained.
High-performance computing has done for research what the Internet has done for society as a whole, he said: “It changes the way you think about your job and the way you do your job. Data are the raw materials of the Information Age, but we have so much data now that analysis is impossible without high-performance computing.”
Spiteri said the academic units expected to use the centre initially will be the traditional ones – chemistry, physics and engineering physics, geological sciences, computer science and mathematics and statistics – but others could become significant participants. “I can only speculate”, he said, how non-traditional users like Art and Art History or Sociology might make use of the centre, “but I’m not going to put a cap on anybody’s ambition, even if I don’t understand it.”
The long-term vision for the centre is to move it out of Arts and Science so it becomes a University-wide entity, he said. Then more formal arrangements can be put in place to pool resources and expertise, and share hardware and software.