New Research Computing Center provides access to hardware and expertise

Computation is now an essential tool for researchers, as data analytics and complex simulations fuel ambitious new studies in the sciences and humanities. But the path from a spreadsheet on a laptop to using the world’s most powerful supercomputers can be intimidating for researchers unfamiliar with computational methods.

To help researchers along this path, the University created the Research Computing Center, providing access to hardware and expertise to faculty and students. At an opening reception on Thursday, Nov. 8 at the John Crerar Library, scientists from Argonne National Laboratory and IBM joined Research Computing Center director H. Birali Runesha in welcoming UChicago researchers to this valuable new resource.

“The mission of the Research Computing Center is to advance research and scholarship at the University,” Runesha said. “What we are trying to do here is not just provide access to hardware, but to work with you to understand your research and integrate high-performance computing into it to achieve our major goal, which is to help you literally transform your research by performing computational analysis that would otherwise not be possible.”

The cornerstone of the Research Computing Center is the new Midway computing cluster, offering more than 3,000 cores of high-performance computational power to researchers. But John Kelly, IBM director of research, said that the value of such a resource goes beyond computing power.

“It’s not about the hardware, it’s about bringing together intellectual capability around such a center,” Kelly said. “Hopefully, what we will achieve through centers like this around the country are breakthroughs from an interdisciplinary approach, and I’m delighted that we’re starting to see that occur here around the center already in its early days.”

To offer a glimpse of the new horizons possible with computationally enhanced research, the event featured a panel of researchers representing academia and industry, as well as a range of disciplines. As “big data” spreads from particle physics and astronomy to new fields such as medicine, biology, social science and the humanities, more researchers experience the potential and challenges of computational research.

“What’s emerging now and dominating our thinking is the scales of data you have to manage,” said James Sexton, program director of the Computational Science Center at IBM. “Scientists are asking much more sophisticated questions that generate and use huge amounts of data. We are growing both the scale of data and what we want to get out of it.”

In order to explore these new areas, many scientists need technical assistance to build models and analytics that reach beyond the abilities of their desktop computer. Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director for computing, environment and life sciences at Argonne and Computation Institute senior fellow, said that the Midway cluster will be a useful stepping stone for researchers seeking to scale up their research to the highest computational levels.

“One possible way in which the RCC can help researchers is by giving them a place to expand ideas off of their laptop onto this next generation [of computing] in an environment that has some traction with the bigger machines,” Stevens said. “If you can get your analysis to run on Midway, you’re pretty far along to getting it to run on the biggest machines on the planet.”

James Evans, associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and Computation Institute fellow, described how computation also is expanding into the new territories of social sciences and humanities. Researchers can now access data from social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook or text databases constructed from millions of articles or books, but need the right approach to maximize the results of these studies.

“Increasingly with huge amounts of data available for answering questions, the bottleneck actually becomes the questions,” Evans said. “There certainly are going to be increasing opportunities for computation and data mining to really look for new questions.”

Aside from the ability to do advanced data analysis and modeling, the Research Computing Center also offers state-of-the-art visualization techniques. Before a room full of observers wearing special glasses, research programmer Robin Weiss exhibited 3D graphics of brain activity, pelvic bone architecture, molecular structure and even the air bubbles that form within a tube of bread dough.

The demonstration was a tangible example of the event’s main theme: how computation can reveal the full value of scientific data and enable researchers to approach big problems from unprecedented angles. With the launch of the Research Computing Center, the UChicago community now has new paths available to harness these valuable resources and expand the scope of research.

UChicago researchers can learn more about the Research Computing Center and apply for an account by visiting