The NCSA

When some of the world’s top scientists, chemists, and engineers need complex solutions to complex problems, they come to Urbana, Illinois.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), located on the campus of UIUC,  is home to Blue Waters, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the country, along with several other teams and technologies committed to helping the public and private sectors answer its biggest questions, quickly.

“Whether its modeling a jet engine for an automobile manufacturer or mapping the human genome for a drug maker, we have machines that can do work that usually takes days, weeks, or months in minutes and hours,” says Scott Wilkin, the Associate Director at NCSA. “That kind of speed and efficiency can change an entire businesses. One researcher told us that Blue Waters actually sped up their work by 10 years.”

Despite the complexities of the problems that the NCSA’s machines are solving, their functionality can be summarized rather simply – more power to compute faster. (To break it down, Blue Waters does quadrillions of calculations per second. If a person can theoretically do one calculation per second, that individual would need millions of years “to do what Blue Water does in a second,” says Wilkins).

Blue Waters

And though Blue Waters is the flagship, most well-know piece of equipment at the NCSA, the center is more than just one super supercomputer. Along with Blue Waters, the NCSA also has iForge, a high-performance computing cluster that’s designed specifically for the center’s industry partners.

“We have 27 partners that  collaborate with the center,” adds Wilkins. Because iForge is smaller than Blue Waters (iForge has 6,000 cores, Blue Waters has 300,000), it’s more customizable and accessible, allowing corporations to design specific computational asks. For example, one major manufacturer uses iForge to do finite element analysis and see how a piece of steel will react to any piece of equipment.

“Like Blue Waters, iForge is helping large corporations cut months off of their work. It helps businesses, like Boeing, who are already as technologically sophisticated as it comes, scale in ways even that they didn’t even know was possible.”

Along with iForge is Brown Dog, a team of software engineers and data scientists at the NCSA. Brown Dog is currently working on services and technology that will make “un-curated” data available and useful to scientists and social scientists.

For example, Brown Dog is developing software that can take a picture of hand-written information, digitize it, filter it, and immediately make it searchable. The team was able to apply this technology to old census records, enabling local governments to get old information online and catalogued much faster than if they were to do it via manual input.

“When people hear ‘data,’ they immediately think of information that’s in number form,” says Trish Barker, Assistant Director for Public Affairs with the NCSA. “Brown Dog is working on solutions for visual data, whether its text, copy, or pictures. Outside of census records, their technology can also scan, analyze, and catalogue MRIs.”

Finally, the NCSA has CyberGIS, the center for Advanced Digital and Spatial Studies. (GIS stands for Geographic Information System). The CyberGIS project aims to establish a new software framework for spatial analysis and modeling capabilities. “Yes, the NCSA is known for supercomputing,” says Barker. “But that supercomputing yields a lot of data and we need to be smart with that data. That’s where CyberGIS comes in.”

Today, the NCSA is focused on staying on “the bleeding-edge of technology” and growing its industry partners. (We’d love to see the NCSA grow to 50 private sector members,” says Wilkins). However, being so advanced actually has its disadvantages – the NCSA is own of the few organizations in the tech sector that may actually be too far ahead, capabilities-wise, than the industry.

“It’s been hard to get organizations to understand that these resources are actually applicable to them,” adds Wilkins. “But as more and more industry partners trumpet their work, people are starting to realize the potential all of this has and how it can apply. We’re here to help people go after industry changing problems.”

(Image via the National Center for Supercomputing Applications).