NSF's new shared supercomputing platform goes to extremes

The National Science Foundation is funding a partnership of 17 academic and research institutions to develop and operate the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), a distributed computing infrastructure that will link researchers with advanced resources such as supercomputers, data and software tools.

XSEDE will expand and eventually replace the NSF TeraGrid program with a $121 million, five-year NSF grant. TeraGrid has provided scientists with access to supercomputing facilities and support software for advanced research during the past 10 years.

“Our goal is to do this in a way that is non-disruptive to the community we have been supporting,” said project director John Towns of the University of Illinois.

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Towns, director of persistent infrastructure at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, said the NSF funding was finalized July 1, but preliminary work has been going on since early April. He described XSEDE as a “managed evolution” to support advanced scientific research with no static end-state.

“The TeraGrid really helped invent the concept of having digital resources and expertise spread across the country and allowing researchers to easily use them,” he said. “This is much more than the same old resources that TeraGrid offered.”

It will be a user-centric environment that will support collaboration as well as high-performance computing.

TeraGrid is a partnership between NSF’s Office of Cyberinfrastructure and 11 government, educational and research facilities that make computing time available on 20 supercomputing platforms. It is supported by grid software and high-performance network connections, and provides data storage and management resources, as well as access to the computers themselves. Total TeraGrid resources now exceed 2 petaflops (a petaflop is 1,000 trillion floating point operations per second) of combined processing power and 60 petabytes of online and archival storage. TeraGrid has allocated more than 1 billion processor hours to researchers each year of its operation.

Projects now supported on the TeraGrid will continue to be supported on XSEDE, Towns said. “From the user’s point of view, there is a change of name and some new things will appear,” he said. “Beyond that, it should not be really different to them.”

TeraGrid has focused primarily on provision of high-performance computing resources across a variety of disciplines. “XSEDE expands the scope of the community we plan to serve,” Towns said. High-performance computing will be a necessary component, but it also will let users build their own ad hoc environments for collaboration, allowing them to make resources available to partners regardless of whether those resources are directly managed by XSEDE.

XSEDE will manage access, allowing users to reach resources using their local campus credentials for authentication so that separate accounts do not have to be created on every computer and server being used.

“It requires a bit of software,” Towns said. “Not too much, as it turns out.”

He said the technology to create a high-performance cyber infrastructure is becoming available. Vendors now are providing tools that are compliant with standards and common practices that enable interoperability in this area.

Although NSF spending on high performance computing facilities will flatten, resources available to XSEDE could increase as collaboration is enabled between researchers. A backbone network linking computing clusters will be created, initially using infrastructure in the National LambdaRail, a collaboration between government, private and academic laboratories that provides high-speed links between facilities.

The XSEDE partnership includes these institutions:

  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Carnegie Mellon University/University of Pittsburgh.
  • University of Texas at Austin.
  • University of Tennessee Knoxville.
  • University of Virginia.
  • Shodor Education Foundation.
  • Southeastern Universities Research Association.
  • University of Chicago.
  • University of California San Diego.
  • Indiana University.
  • Julich Supercomputing Centre (Germany).
  • Purdue University.
  • Cornell University.
  • Ohio State University.
  • University of California Berkeley.
  • Rice University.
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The partnership is led by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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