A tremendous return | National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois

A tremendous return

04.28.11 -

An expert in building reliable computing systems, Ravi Iyer is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Vice Chancellor for Research. NCSA's J. William Bell talked to Iyer recently about the Blue Waters sustained-petascale supercomputer and the role of large projects like Blue Waters and interdisciplinary centers like NCSA at the University.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the role that large-scale projects like Blue Waters that span campus play at a place like Illinois.

A. Let me tell you what was exciting about the Blue Waters project. We had those in scientific computing at NCSA, the major applications researchers, the people who really understood heavy iron computing on the ground. And we could not just go and say, "We'll only do our piece and not do anything else." We really had to work together to build the proposal so that, jointly with IBM, it really was a coherent argument that this system, the Blue Waters machine, would in fact be the best machine possible. Given that this was a very diverse group, we could make the case that the benefits that would accrue to the country would be much greater putting it in a place that was a computer science and computer engineering powerhouse, as opposed to going and putting it in a national lab or somewhere else where the machine would just be substantially unavailable to others.

I think what was unique is our ability to span this and be able to bring out something transformational to computer science and engineering in this country. That would not have happened without such an eclectic group and this broad array of application experts who worked very closely with the system designers and with IBM.

Q. Applications scientists seem to have high hopes as well.

A. Very high hopes indeed. Throughout the campus and in my travels across the country and internationally, I think, the hope that the world has for Blue Waters is that we'll be able to address these big societal problems and that they will be partners in working with us.

In the end, once the machine is in place, the big story is the major issues—l;energy, the climate, genetic issues that we have—I mean how can we solve these issues? You need a computing system of this size to start to make a dent in this.

Q. With your vice chancellor for research hat on, what role does that play in Illinois' overall mandate? Facilitating the solution of those societal problems?

A. These kinds of environments, these kinds of centers that address those issues are critical if we are to maintain the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Without these kinds of investments, we will fall back.

Our friends at IBM call it "building the smarter planet." That needs a level of compute power and a level of smarts in building these machines that doesn't exist today. But it is also engaging our bright young students in that process that [is important].

Q. Is there a synergy there to putting a resource like Blue Waters at a university? Between innovation and education?

A. Students today, and rightly so, are really very keen that their education address some serious and important societal problems—food, energy, water. I can see courses, research projects, proposals going out that now put forward the existence or the availability of a Blue Waters-type of machine as being a resource in addressing these problems.

I see a huge opportunity to engage our students in this from engineering to humanities. That's where it's transformational. It's not just being restricted to computer science or engineering. We have students and faculty in digital humanities. We have social scientists and those in bioinformatics, looking at a computing environment of this kind and saying, "OK, how can I bring my problem to this? What is it going to let me do in terms of new levels of creativity that I haven't been able to do before?" That's exciting. And it wouldn't have happened if the machine hadn't been placed in a large public university like Illinois.

Q. Do you see that as a generational thing? An Illinois thing? Something else?

A. I think our students are really forward thinking. I don't know of too many universities whose students have collected additional fees to put into addressing environmental challenges. I don't know of another university where they've actually funded the recycling of food waste.

I say this because I think it's not an accident. We get the best students. The students come here because they've heard of great things happening at centers like NCSA, centers like Beckman Institute or the Coordinated Science Lab. When they come here, they see these opportunities. The word spreads very quickly.

I think all of this makes for the excitement. And I think it's great to see. The investment that we've made and the people that we've nurtured over these years being at the center of this and being so much integrated into the thinking of the campus.

I would say this has been a very wise investment. The return has been tremendous.

Q. You talked about the national and international reputation of places like NCSA and Beckman. How does Illinois make best use of that reputation?

A. The value of these multidisciplinary labs that we have at Illinois is that they are agile. Our departments have to put forward curriculum. They have to really be in the throes of undergraduate education. The departments in my sense are like these big battleships that need to move, but they can't turn as fast.

Q. Great impact though, from a battleship.

A. The impact can be huge. But places like NCSA and [Illinois'] Institute for Genomic Biology and Beckman, they have an agility. They can move into new areas.

The real value to the undergraduate, to the education enterprise, is that when professors are moving into new areas, this material goes into the classrooms. It goes into the graduate classrooms, next semester it goes into the undergraduate classrooms. And that's why our reputation is as high as it is. These labs play a major, major role. Also, it goes without saying that it attracts the best students, it attracts the best faculty.

Q. Tell us how we take advantage of this success to project out to that next thing and to continue to enhance the reputation of the university as a whole.

A. Professors are writing new proposals, and actually advocating new ideas. They are in the front seat in defining what the country should be addressing. We're able to go to [a funding agency like the National Science Foundation] and say, "We know what the country should be doing next." Our faculty, our young faculty and our senior faculty, are very believable when they make this claim.

And if you're defining what the direction should be, then you're in the front seat in receiving that funding.

So it's a whole cycle of faculty leadership, student leadership, and indeed I'd say it is these experiences that make the students go and think in a very entrepreneurial way. They see the faculty as being adventurous, and they start thinking we could start some companies. We are now known as the place where undergraduates go and start big companies and are very successful.

Q. Given some students' past successes—Mosaic, YouTube, PayPal—the entrepreneurism, it seems, has a level of creativity that goes at an angle from what they learn in class.

A. Where I see our students really excel is in out of the box thinking. Beyond the classes they take, it's the peer group. Talking about things outside their research and, of course, the training that we give. It's the rigor of the training. We set high expectations. We expect them to set high expectations of themselves.

So it's that kind of an environment we provide. And I come back to this: The difference between Illinois and big campuses like ours is the existence of these multidisciplinary laboratories where students can really go and think and work and get some experience. It gives them a sense of excitement that they won't get elsewhere. It's what keeps us competitive. I think it's what keeps our country going toward a direction that we continue to be really competitive and creative.