Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Mastering the Challenge of High-Performance Computing

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Mastering the Challenge of High-Performance Computing

Article excerpt

Not long after her appointment as Hampton University's first chief information officer in 1999, Debra S. White, a former IBM executive, found that in addition to managing a campus IT network upgrade she had to contend with demanding scientists in programs, such as physics and atmospheric sciences, conducting nationally acclaimed and highly advanced research.

"We spent time listening to them, and I became aware that we had to provide better research tools in terms of our computing infrastructure," she says.

In time, Hampton officials made even more campus network upgrades, and the school gained a level of high-speed Internet connectivity, known as DS-3 or 45 megabits per second, which qualified them to be considered part of the elite Internet2 community of research schools. "You have to provide researchers the best tools," White says.

Over the past several years, college and university administrators have laboriously tried to keep up with information technology innovations in administrative systems, teaching and learning practices, online education, and fast and convenient campus Internet access. In the midst of rapid change, institutions have coped by placing central authority in the hands of chief information officers, and have recognized the strategic importance of information technology in making a school attractive to students and faculty.

Equally demanding, if not more so than the administrative and the teaching and learning applications in computing, has been science and technology research. Just as all of higher education got serious with wiring individual campuses for the Internet, the nation's leading research universities in association with national supercomputing centers have begun generating an entirely new set of computing tools and functions for computers in research.

The major schools and research centers have set the stage for what is known as "high-performance computing," which refers to computing tools and processes capable of generating knowledge at the frontiers of science. "The demand for sophisticated cyberinfrastructure is exploding in every field of science and engineering. Teams of researchers working within and across disciplines are coming together to lay the foundations for a cyberinfrastructure revolution," said Dr. Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation in a recent speech at a supercomputing conference.

"I believe we stand on the threshold of a new age of scientific exploration, one that will give us a deeper understanding of our planet and allow us to improve the quality of people's lives worldwide.... For decades, NSF has been steadily crystallizing the idea of a center that brings together diverse skills, tools and perspectives to focus laserlike on scientific and technological problems. From this (came) the original science and technology centers, the engineering research centers and the supercomputing centers," she added.

For smaller colleges and universities that are less research-driven and more teaching-oriented than bigger schools, the move into high-performance computing represents a considerable challenge in how these institutions will develop their information technology infrastructures. Academic leaders say there is peril in ignoring developments in the high-performance computing arena. One of the biggest worries is that faculty will miss out on opportunities to improve their teaching if they fail to learn innovative research techniques afforded by advanced computing.

"We have to provide the benefits of high-performance computing in the curriculum," says Dr. Joyce F. Williams-Green, the chief information officer at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) in Winston-Salem, N.C.

For institutions that are determined on not falling behind, there has been some effort by the supercomputing community and the large research schools to reach out and share resources and knowledge. In fact, some of that outreach activity has targeted minority-serving institutions, and is helping a few historically Black schools develop highly competitive research and academic programs. …

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