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Bridges: A new approach to supercomputing

Image courtesy Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

Tens of thousands of scientists and engineers across the US harness the power of massive supercomputers to solve research problems that cannot be answered in the lab. However, studies show these numbers represent only a fraction of the potential users of such systems. As high-performance computing (HPC) becomes central to the work and progress of researchers in all fields, from genomics and ecology to medicine and education, new kinds of computing resources and more inclusive modes of interaction are required.

Last week the US National Science Foundation awarded $9.65m - to build Bridges, a uniquely capable supercomputer designed to enable new research communities and bring desktop convenience to supercomputing. Bridges will help researchers tackle new kinds of problems in genetics, the natural sciences, and the humanities - where the volume of data rather than computational speed impacts scientists. Users with different scales of data will also be able to use a mix of memory, data bandwidth, and computational power customized to meet their needs.

"The name Bridges stems from three computational needs the system will fill for the research community," says Nick Nystrom, principal investigator of the project and Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) director of strategic applications. "Foremost, Bridges will bring supercomputing to nontraditional users and research communities. Second, its data-intensive architecture will allow high-performance computing to be applied effectively to big data. Third, it will bridge supercomputing to university campuses to ease access and provide burst capability."

"The ease of use planned for Bridges promises to be a game-changer," says Patrick D. Gallagher, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US. "Among many other applications, we look forward to it helping biomedical scientists unravel and understand the vast volume of genomic data currently being generated." The NSF grant funded the acquisition of the system in November 2014. A target production date of January 2016 is planned.

Bridging to today's vast data

In what could be called 'traditional' supercomputing - in fields such as physics, fluid dynamics, and cosmology - arithmetic speed is paramount, and tightly coupled calculations span many thousands of computational cores. Bridges targets problems that, on other computers, are constrained by the processors limited ability to draw from large amounts of data. Bridges' large memory will allow those problems to be expressed efficiently, using applications and familiar programming languages that researchers are already using on their desktops.

Bridges will feature multiple nodes with as much as 12 terabytes each of shared memory - equivalent to unifying the RAM in 1,536 high-end notebook computers. This will enable the system to handle the largest memory-intensive problems in important research areas such as genome sequence assembly, machine learning, and cybersecurity.

"Bridges represents a technological departure that offers users speed when they need it, but powerful ways to handle large data as well," says Michael Levine, PSC scientific director and professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, US. "In addition to serving traditional supercomputing researchers requiring large memory, Bridges will offer the ability to solve scientific problems that hinge more on analyzing vast amounts of data than on solving differential equations."

Irene Qualters, division director for advanced cyberinfrastructure at the NSF, notes that "Bridges will help expand the capabilities of the NSF-supported computational infrastructure, pushing the frontiers of science forward in biology, the social sciences, and other emerging computational fields by exploiting interactive and cloud-based computing paradigms."

"First and foremost, Bridges is about enabling researchers who've outgrown their own computers and campus computing clusters to graduate to supercomputing with a minimum of additional effort," says Ralph Roskies, PSC scientific director and professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, US. "We expect it to empower researchers to focus on their science more than the computing."

Bridging to new research communities

To help research communities that have not traditionally used supercomputers, Bridges has also been designed for ease of use. The system will maintain substantial capacity for interactive, on-demand access, as users are used to having on their personal computers. Providing this interactive access is a disruptive change. Rather than logging in, manually transferring data, submitting jobs to a batch queuing system, and waiting to receive results, researchers will be able to test their hypotheses immediately.

Gateways (and tools for gateway building) will provide easy-to-use access to Bridges' high-performance computing and data resources, allowing users to launch jobs, orchestrate complex workflows, and manage data from their web browsers - all without having to learn to program a supercomputer. Additionally, virtualization will enable users who have developed or acquired environments for solving computational problems on their local computers to import their entire environments into Bridges.

Together these innovations will enable researchers to use the system at their own levels of computing expertise, ranging from new users who wish to have a PC-like experience without having to learn parallel programming, to supercomputing experts wanting to tailor specific applications to their needs.

Bridges will be a part of the NSF's XSEDE nationwide network of supercomputing resources. A launch event for Bridges is scheduled in January 2016.

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