Friday, December 9, 2011

SARA celebrates 40 years of ICT research infrastructure in the Netherlands

At the end of a week that has included innovation in Brussels and Nobel prize winning physics in Sweden comes a celebration – the 40th anniversary of SARA, e-infrastructure provider in the Netherlands. Our offices are next door to SARA so I am particularly pleased to join them for their celebrations. We are glamorously hosted today by the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam (which I’m ashamed to say I have yet to visit after 18 months in the city). The day is in two parts, a symposium in the morning (involving presentations) and a celebration in the afternoon (also presentations, but with the more traditionally celebratory food, drinks and music as well).

This morning’s keynote was delivered by Marc Teerlink from IBM, who introduced us to ‘supercomputer’, Watson. Watson made history by winning the US quiz programme Jeopardy! in February this year - rivalling the ability of humans to answer questions in natural language. Having watched Watson in action on a video, I’m glad I didn’t take it on when I saw it at SC11 in Seattle last month, it could have been embarrassing. Incidentally, one of the trickiest problems they had to solve was not to finesse the computing but to find a way for Watson to press the buzzer – the finger they constructed for it kept breaking the button. But Watson’s ability to engage in this deep question and answer model could have benefits not just for winning quiz shows, but for example in health for diagnostics. As Teerlink said, with a trillion devices online and 2 billion users, businesses at the moment are “dying of thirst in an ocean of data.” How do you make sense of it all?

Understanding data, or e-knowledge, was a theme picked up by the post-lunch keynote speaker Larry Smart of Calit2 who looked at some of the leading edge applications for supercomputers. Modeling flames, supernovae, fusion, Parkinson’s, earthquakes, water vapour in the atmosphere and renewable fuels were just some applications. “Supercomputers are like putting your glasses on, they make the fuzzy suddenly look very sharp,” said Smart. But supercomputers aren’t enough on their own, you need supernetworks and supervisualistion to mine the data. GLIF (Global Lambda Integrated Facility), for example, provides a 10 Gbps pipe for sharing data, and IBM uses multi-stacked screens to visualise it. Supercomputers are now being built that are optimised for eating this ‘Big Data’ rather than for solving equations – ‘Flash’ GORDON in San Diego has several TB of RAM. According to Smart, commercial clouds are overhyped, the future is in HPC clouds, an area where SARA is of course very active.

Dutch company Philips is a heavy user of the BigGrid grid computing infrastructure – of BigGrid's 1.6 million jobs and 5.3 million CPU hours per year, Philips' usage represents around half. According to Emile Aarts of Philips, e-science will have a big future at Philips in the areas of digital pathology, such as digitising and sharing tissue samples, for digital health monitoring and intelligent urban systems, including street lamps.

So it’s a happy birthday to SARA from me and all at EGI. As a person of a similar vintage (shh – keep that to yourself) I’m delighted to see a 40 year in such excellent shape. Gelukkige verjaardag and all the best for the next 40 years!

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