Alabama Schools Tap Supercomputer Network
Technology’s growing importance in the classroom is prompting many schools to seek the same computing and network resources once only used by the likes of NASA.
Educational initiatives, such as one-computer-to-one-student and distance learning, are creating new demands on administrators, who must accommodate higher network use and security in their districts.
“Five years ago, if the Internet went down in a school system, it was an inconvenience,” says David Ivey, CSC Alabama Supercomputer Program director. “Today, it stops business.”
When the Alabama Supercomputer Authority (ASA) opened the United States’ first state supercomputer center in the late ’80s, it began providing high-performance computing resources to universities for research and development. Today the authority has expanded its clients and services, providing Internet and technology services to more than 130 public K-12 school systems, 30 colleges, seven training centers, 15 universities and 21 libraries and library systems.
CSC supports the ASA’s supercomputer center in Huntsville, and enhances and maintains a state broadband network that transports information, including video, voice and data. CSC also provides network connectivity to Alabama school systems, along with services such as purchasing and delivering Internet in bulk at low rates, Web applications development, security, disaster recovery and hosting, help desk, technical support, consulting and network design.
Initiatives drive new network dependence
As schools adopt initiatives, they generate new levels of dependence on the network. For example, Huntsville’s school system, which has 23,000 students, has implemented a one-computer to-one-student program. “In two weeks, their Internet use has doubled, and we expect it will go up by a factor of three or four,” Ivey says.
As network use rises, so do security issues. In 2005, Alabama schools used about 30 firewalls. Now they have 130. “It’s grown threefold, and the configurations have become more complex,” says Mike Trice, CSC senior firewall engineer. “With increased mobility and BYOD, it’s going to get even more so.”
Recently, CSC built an application firewall to secure financial information, since what was commercially available was too expensive and slow. “CSC is very innovative and proactive in meeting new needs,” says Kim Carroll, Alabama Supercomputer Authority chief fiscal officer. “They look at what’s needed, solve the problem and roll out something to meet that need.”
Besides security, disaster recovery can be a big issue for the ASA when tornadoes and hurricanes strike. On April 27, 2011, Alabama experienced one of the largest “super-tornado” outbreaks in history. Sixty-two confirmed tornadoes hit the state that day, leaving a combined damage path that covered more than 620 miles and causing almost 2,000 injuries and 140 deaths.
CSC worked with the ASA to keep the ASA’s 23,500 squarefoot data center running continuously through the disaster and the week following while Huntsville experienced a week-long citywide power outage. Employees worked around the clock the first 24 hours, while a special plan was put in place for 12-hour shifts to comply with dusk-to-dawn curfews.
Because of damage and power outages, the ASA-CSC team also provided emergency Internet access and services to the City of Huntsville, state and national emergency management agencies, as well as hosted and supported emergency services outside of the norm, including helping a university set up a wireless link to an elementary school that uses only online textbooks and hosting a school system website.
“Our ability to support not only the ASA, but others, too, was the result of a heroic effort of our people. They were smart, got in, kept things going and solved problems,” Ivey says. “That’s what distinguishes CSC from other companies — our people, service and knowledge, and the flexibility we provide.”
Flexibility key to high performance
Flexibility has been critical to maintaining the authority’s supercomputer center, says David Young, CSC high-performance computing computational specialist and author of several books on computational chemistry. Each year, the team looks at how demand has changed and steers the center’s capabilities to best support it without duplicating resources that researchers already have at their universities.
For example, in 2008, CSC custom built the center’s Dense Memory Cluster, which today has 1,800 CPU cores and 10 terabytes of distributed memory, to meet its customers’ needs, which span research ranging from gene sequencing of food species to remediation of nuclear waste.
Unlike most supercomputer centers, where researchers are experienced users, many of the ASA’s users are students unfamiliar with the technology. To support them, CSC has developed tools such as a comprehensive online manual and a program that uses artificial intelligence to predict how much time and resources are needed to complete a job.
“Without a tool like this, determining the time and resources needed for a job can become very complicated,” Young says. Such tools, he adds, are a key reason the ASA likes CSC.
“We are willing to innovate on their behalf, and are always asking ourselves, ‘What’s the next thing we can improve?’” Young says. When needed, Young taps CSC’s High Performance Computing Center of Excellence for additional insight.
“We have specialists supporting supercomputer centers for agencies such as NOAA and NASA, and when we’re looking to build or buy something, we talk with them in case they’ve already evaluated those solutions,” says Young, who, like the rest of the CSC team, is already looking ahead to new early-stage technologies, such as the parallel programming language CUDA, to determine whether they can deliver even greater efficiencies.
JENNY MANGELSDORF is a writer for CSC’s digital marketing team.