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XSEDE: The place to go for sustainable digital research services

Students, scientists, and industry leaders came together in July for one of the year's premier events in high-performance computing - the XSEDE13: Gateway to Discovery conference. The San Diego, CA, US event attracted 750 attendees from 50 states and 14 countries, with many exploring XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment) resources for the first time.

XSEDE project lead John Towns (left) and Jan Odegard. Image courtesy Amber Harmon.

XSEDE supports 17 supercomputers and high-end visualization and data analysis resources, as well as other specialized digital services that complement the machines located at high-performance centers and institutions across the US. XSEDE lowers the barriers to entry into high-performance computing, and provides compute resources to accelerate groundbreaking discovery discoveries and groundbreaking research in science, engineering, and technology.

"We really are about trying to increase productivity for researchers, engineers, and scholars - we want XSEDE to become the go-to place to find digital research services to support their work," says XSEDE project lead John Towns. "Our goal is to become not just a leader, but a lasting element in the high-performance computing community."

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology projects that demand in the science and technology sector will grow by an estimated one million jobs by 2018. One of the propositions to help fulfill that demand is to inspire more students to stay in science through undergraduate participation in faculty research.

Programming Challenge award winners for Most Creative Solution. The high school students are from Louisiana School for Math Science and the Arts. Image courtesy Amber Harmon

"We're preparing the next generation of researchers and scholars," says Towns. "It's critical to foster the use of these resources by the students that will be making the next generation of advances in digital science."

Over 200 students attended and participated in the week's events.The youngest got an introduction to computer science at Ready Set Robots, a guided, hands-on programming workshop tailored to their specific age groups. Exposed to basic programming concepts and ideas, the students immediately saw the results of their work through behaviors displayed by their robots. This instant feedback helped them troubleshoot and refine their code.

The XSEDE13 Student Programming Challenge supported student groups and collaborative approaches to variouscomputational science problems. The students ranged from high school to undergraduate and graduate researchers. Working with LittleFe clusters, the teams used a range of programming languages to address program sets. The unbounded ability of young minds was evident as a group of high school students from Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches LA, US, took the 'Most Creative Solution' award.

When asked about their experiences overall, the students provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, noted Ange Mason, XSEDE13 student program chair. "The students were ecstatic about their inclusion in the conference and the support they received from other students and student mentors."

One of the most interesting aspects of the XSEDE project - and one to watch - is its design, created to support the changing needs of the community. "We've designed XSEDE with the explicit understanding that it will evolve over time," says Towns.

In fact, Steven Newhouse, director of the European Grid Infrastructure, was a catalyst for additional sustainability discussion during Town's opening remarks. Towns - refering to the annual review of XSEDE held June 11 - 13 in Washington, DC, US - said the panel "wants to see XSEDE become much more than just an National Science Foundation project. This will require a funding model that is beyond a single NSF award."

XSEDE13 program chairs. Image courtesy Amber Harmon.

The guarantee of uninterrupted service and support is increasingly important. Historically, NSF projects like XSEDE have gone through a serious review and possible rebidding process around the 10-year mark. "Persistence of resources and support will require long-term infrastructure provisioning without periodic disruption in who and how the resources are provided," adds Towns.

Nancy Wilkins-Diehr, conference chair and co-director of XSEDE's Extended Collaborative Support Services, announced the conference's dedicated biosciences day, with a bio-panel where both industry and academic researchers could learn more about their impact on the life sciences. Wilkins-Diehr is also the associate director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), an organized research unit of the University of California, San Diego, US.

Many components are at play in making advances across multiple disciplines. Researchers often use multiple infrastructures that are heterogeneous in nature, which creates complications. However, a single compute engine, database, or network will not get them where they need to go - integration is necessary to increase community productivity.

"We want to further enable end-users to include capabilities and resources in XSEDE that we don't necessarily own," Towns says. "When others bring resources into the mix, we can facilitate access to them." Towns also announced that storage would soon be available to all end-users. Ultimately, while XSEDE cannot be everything to everyone, it can provide end-users with an unmatched level of support - making infrastructures as seamless to use as possible.

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