How high performance computing works in the Maritimes

Universities across Canada rely on high performance computing (HPC) to support research activities.  With the speed of developments in cloud computing and big data, the need for HPC in post-secondary research is greater than ever.

Compute Canada, a collaboration among universities, makes HPC available to researchers. The Atlantic Computational Excellence Network, or ACEnet, was formed in 2006 by a handful of researchers who felt it important to share high performance computing resources.  In that way, resources could be managed and maintained by experts, leaving researchers to do what they do best.

Eight years later, ACEnet consists of nine institutions, five clusters, and is one the regional partners of Compute Canada, the national umbrella organization for advanced computing.  While maintaining hardware and software remains integral to ACEnet, its real value lies in the scientific and technical expertise of its staff.  They help researchers determine their needs, navigate resources, develop solutions to specific project challenges, and ensure training and help are always just a call or email away.

As an alumnus of Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador (MUN), I was curious to learn more about my alma mater’s participation in the HPC world.  MUN is one of nine partners in ACEnet.  I was lucky to engage with St. Francis Xavier University’s Greg Lukeman, CTO of ACEnet and and Michel Fash, ACEnet’s marketing and business development manager. St. FX is also a partner in ACEnet.

Michel and Greg helped me understand how participating universities rely on ACEnet to support their work. Advanced computing enables researchers to perform computations that are either too complex or would be too slow if performed on a desktop computer.  ACEnet and the other Compute Canada consortia provide not only advanced computing resources, but more importantly the expertise required to apply those resources to research specific projects.

This has enabled researchers to accelerate the pace of their discoveries and innovation, resulting in real societal and economic benefits to Canadians.  ACEnet-enabled research has included areas of neuroscience, linguistics, analysis on various disease traits, financial risk modeling and many others.

Providing this level of advanced computing and supporting research across a myriad of disciplines is not without its challenges. The biggest challenge is staying on top of the changing technology.  As we all know from looking at personal desktop computing and cellphones, the rate at which technology changes is incredible.  Having the funding available to stay on top of those changes is very challenging, particularly in a climate of federal and provincial fiscal restraint.  However, investing in advanced computing helps Canada retain its ability to stay globally competitive and introduce new products and innovations that strengthen the economy and quality of life for Canadians.

In addition to maintaining leading edge technology HPC is impacted by two fast growing areas of the computing world, big data and cloud computing.  According to Michel and Greg,It’s always a challenge to keep technology current in such a rapidly changing environment, and to align these new demands with funding opportunities.  However, this is the game we’re in. ‘Big Data’ workflows and providing resources in a ‘Cloud’ environment provide new ways to engage with the hardware that can provide just as much opportunity for our traditional users as it does for attracting new research areas.

“ACEnet is currently involved with a project with Compute Canada to provide both traditional compute and Hadoop environments to our users via a cloud service.  It should be ready for testing this summer.”

This commitment to innovation and continuous improvement is a high priority for ACEnet and in five years it will likely have more computational power, though centralized in fewer datacenters.  It will have more ways for different types of researchers to interface with the resources, and will continue to be a reflection of the needs of researchers and industry in Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country.  One of ACEnet’s greatest strengths is its responsiveness to its users, environment and changing needs.  Whatever developments come in advanced computing, ACEnet will work to ensure that it has the resources its users need to continue the great research work they are doing.

With HPC becoming increasingly critical to university research, it is not surprising that a lot of interest is focused on it. The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)  is the world’s largest educational and scientific professional computing association.   Its Digital Library  has thousands of unique holdings and full text publications on HPC.

In the ACM Learning Center , you will find the successful ACM HPC Webinar and Techpack. The Digital Library is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about HPC.  For those working in the field, the ACM HPC special Interest Group, SIGHPC, is one of the largest and most active in the ACM sphere of SIGs

In Canada that interest comes to a focus this year in Halifax at the HPCS 2014 Conference in June.  The annual High Performance Computing Symposium is Canada’s premier forum where accomplishments enabled by advanced computing are showcased and outcomes unveiled.  The event also offers technical workshops for advanced computing practitioners.

Researchers across the spectrum – from digital humanities to computational chemistry – share their experiences, results and ideas enabled by advanced computing.  Researchers and resource providers who are pushing the boundaries of what HPC, big data, and advanced computing can do, share their work.  Private sector organizations learn how advanced computing can help them.  Industry providers connect with their users and are key to discussions about advanced computing in Canada.

This is an event you do not want to miss.   I will be there in June to cover the conference and share my experiences with you.



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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Dave O'Leary
Dave O'Leary
Dave is a founding managing partner of REDDS Venture Investment Partners ( His career in post-secondary education included roles as CIO, Vice-President and acting President. Dave is a member of the Practitioner Board of the Association for Computing Machinery. He chairs the ACM Practitioner Board Marketing Committee and is also a second term member of the Board's Professional Development Committee. (ACM - Association for Computing Machinery--official IFIP international member representative, largest and most respected international computing science, research, education, innovation professional association well known for their AM Turing Award (Nobel of computing) with 1 million USD prize, 1.5 millions user digital library, 2 million reach, learning center, Applicative conference, Queue magazine, 200 conferences/events, 78 publications/news, 37 Special Interest Groups). He is a board director of the Global Industry Council and the immediate Past President of the Canadian Information Processing Society of British Columbia. Dave is co-founder and director of an ISV computer technology business and is currently leading and advising start ups in the USA, China, Europe, and Canada. He serves as a task force member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and is the past chair of the Canadian National Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology. He served two terms as a director of the Canadian National Information and Communications Technology Sector Council advising on National technology and economic strategy. Dave has appeared as a panel member in a number of Microsoft webcasts and has presented globally on the business and technical impacts of technology in training. He is the recipient (2002) of the highest national award for leadership in post-secondary education.

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