The University of Arizona


UA's Multi-Million Dollar Research Initiative Gets Booster
Thursday, February 23, 2012
La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications

The UA's Research Data Center offers researchers access to powerful high-performance computing capabilities benefiting scientific, engineering, social, economic and cultural research.

Investigating challenging questions related to new energy sources, diseases, environmental patterns or even the origins of the universe commonly require massive amounts of data and also access to tremendous computing power for analyzing those data.

At the University of Arizona, the newly unveiled and centrally funded 1,500 square-foot Research Data Center is designed to better support researchers with the output, serving as a centralized hub for large-scale computing and storage.

“What the researcher gets is an environment with more compute cycles and faster computing power able to handle large amounts of data,” said Michele Norin, the UA’s chief information officer. 

The Research Data Center, or RDC, will be introduced during a grand opening and ribbon cutting on Feb. 27, 4:30-5:30 p.m., at the UA’s Computer Center, 1077 N. Highland Ave. The event is free and open to all.

“For the research community to be able to analyze more data over a shorter period of time enables the achievement of their research goals faster," said Norin, also executive director of University Information Technology Services, or UITS.

It also means improvements to the UA's capacity for large-scale data analysis, modeling and visualization.

RDC expands on prior capabilities, adding additional technology and support for the benefit of members of the UA's research community who rely on large datasets. 

Among the center's newest additions are five mega computers backed with more than 6,000 processors – nearly twice as many as before – enabling researchers to crunch an exorbitant amount of data in a fraction of the time, from days to as little as hours or minutes. 

With consulting personnel on staff available to all users, the RDC offers more high performance computing and high throughput computing power – necessary for knowledge creation that results in new technologies, processes and understanding.

"Almost anyone can generate data these days, but pulling massive amounts of data together and making sense of the big picture is hard and requires this kind of serious computational power," said Leslie Tolbert, the UA's senior vice president for research.

The upgrades "will greatly advance the possibilities and impact of research at the UA," Tolbert said.

She and Norin emphasized how important it is for an institution like the UA to invest in both knowledge creation and technology transfer and commercialization. 

The RDC is one among several recent examples of the UA expanding efforts to better support the knowledge creation of the University's research community while also offering additional resources to facilitate technology transfer. 

During the fall, UA President Eugene G. Sander charged administrators with creating Tech Launch Arizona, a new technology commercialization center designed to consolidate efforts around moving knowledge and inventions to market.

Last month, the Arizona Center for Innovation, or AzCI, a technology business incubator at the UA's Tech Park, introduced new facilities that help advanced collaboration and commercialization efforts.

Administrators said RDC, given its capabilities, also should better position the UA to attract and retain top faculty and students. Also, University researchers will contribute to the growth of RDC, which is governed by a group of faculty, staff and UITS personnel.

"It would take a significant investment for individual units to do what we have done," Norin added. "Finding ways to be more efficient is definitely on people’s minds more and more, especially because of the budgetary constraints we all are under." 

Facilities like the RDC are crucial given the exponential growth in research demands. UA researchers engage in more than $600 million in research-related projects and initiatives, and an increasing number of them require hefty computational power, Tolbert said.

Among those researchers is Bonnie Hurwitz, a doctoral candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology also studying management information systems. 

What lies beneath the ocean’s surface are unimaginable pressures and frigid temperatures. It is a dark, inhospitable, nutrient-poor place that counts as the last great unexplored ecosystem on the planet.

There, Hurwitz, who works in the Sullivan Lab, is discovering new viruses while working under the direction of UA faculty advisor Matt Sullivan, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Hurwitz compares 1.8 million protein sequences of her discoveries to 40 million known viral protein sequences. This process takes an enormous amount of computing power. 

"Think of it: Our researchers are analyzing genomes and transcriptomes sequences of many species, correlating data on climate around the globe with various natural phenomena, trying to make the most of human health and disease data, analyzing the many millions of flora and fauna that populate our gut or that populate the world's oceans," Tolbert said.

"The research we can do with the new RDC resource will be at the cutting edge of bringing together and analyzing the huge amounts of data that are being made available by new analytical techniques," Tolbert said, "thus allowing our researchers to address some of the biggest challenges that our society faces."

Ellisa Pavlish, a technical writer and graduate student in the UA College of Education, contributed to this article.