Undergraduates given access to high-powered computers for research

Sunday, January 31, 2016 - 12:23pm

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To facilitate and encourage undergraduate work on research requiring high-performance computing resources, the University Advanced Research Computing – Technical Services is launching a new program allowing students the use of a computer system called Flux.

Flux is a shared computing cluster operated by ARC-TS that is available throughout campus. It is a large computer with thousands of individual processors that students can use for high-powered computing uses.

Originally, Flux high-powered computing resources were only available for faculty members and graduate students working on postdoctoral research. However, the resource has been extended to include undergraduates who have a research activity that could require and benefit from using Flux.

Eric Michielssen, associate vice president for research, is responsible for advanced research computing and coordinating computational and data science for the entire campus. He said launching this program is an attempt to make access to research computing resources easier and less intimidating to undergraduate students.  

“Before, all science was done using theory or experimentation,” Michielssen said. “Now, we don’t have to develop new theories to understand some phenomena. We don’t have to go into the lab and do physical experiments, we can simulate all of these phenomena on a computer and use a computer as our virtual lab bench.”

This initiative also encourages undergraduates to receive endorsement from a faculty member, and though graduate students and faculty pay for accessing Flux with money that often comes from research grants, undergraduates can access Flux free of charge.

For undergraduates to apply to use Flux, they must fill out a form on the ARC-TS website to request its resources through Flux for Undergraduates and include an abstract of the research project requiring the resource.

Despite opening up the resource to undergraduate students, Michielssen said because of the faculty and graduate research going on requiring extensive use of the machine, it will be available with some limits.

For undergraduate students working with faculty members, the faculty member will endorse the student and justify their need for access to the computer resource, and the student, whether they are individual students or a part of a student organization, will be given an account. Michielssen said ARC-TS wants students to work with a faculty member.

The University has only been using Flux for about six years, but nearly all 19 schools and colleges have found a way to use the resource.

“We didn’t quite know how this facility would be used,” Michielssen said. “We didn’t quite know how to partition off a section to enable undergraduate access. Frankly, it has been a very steep learning curve, and if we could have done it two years ago, we would have.”

Michielssen said though Flux just opened and undergraduate use is lower, it could rise in the future.

“That would be a great problem to have and we will do our best to accommodate (undergraduates),” Michielssen said. “We want undergrads to be fully aware of the potential of computational and data science both as a career path and as an avenue for further study.”

Rackham student Jonathan Stroud, organizational chair of the Michigan Data Science Team, said being one of the pilot student groups to use Flux has allowed the team to try many different things.

The MDST competes in competitive data science competitions against data scientists from around the world in online prediction challenges.

“People can make predictions about certain data sets and you can go forward on how accurate your predictions are,” Stroud said. “We submit those predictions to a website that has all those answers hidden and they score us on how well we did and rank us against other teams around the world.”

Stroud said the opportunities offered by this system are unique and advantageous for their team.

“As far as we know, we’re the only group that does anything like this at any university,” Stroud said. “They’ve given us a lot more resources than we’ve ever really anticipated. We’re still figuring out how we want to use all of this.”

Stoud said before having access to Flux, it was difficult for members of the team to run any computations on their personal computers that required more than a few hours to run because the students would need their computers for other uses during that time.

“These are really computation intensive tasks that (students) are running,” Stroud said. “It really helps on Flux being able to have this remote system that’s always going to be up.”

Krishna Garikipati, associate director for research at the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering, said there was previously a gap between research opportunities and undergraduate students. This initiative was launched to bring undergraduates closer to research using high-powered scientific computing.

Garikipati also said the initiative provides an incentive for undergraduate students to do this type of research by making available a high-powered computing resource they would otherwise not have access to.

“Now when an undergraduate approaches a faculty member with an interest in maybe working in their research group … it is possible for the undergraduate to do, but now without necessarily putting a burden on that research group’s computing resources,” Garikipati said.

“This is something that we hope will become known to undergrads, that the message gets out and more come students come by,” Garikipati said. “Hopefully students will feel that if there were some barriers to their approaching faculty groups to do research, at least one of them has been lowered.”