Grant will boost UW-Madison computing network

Faced with a demand for research computing infrastructure that meets the growing needs of compute and data-intensive research, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is using a $500,000 Federal grant to experiment with advanced frameworks and technologies that will enable researchers to move large amounts of data to and from the campus.

The Campus Cyberinfrastructure - Network Infrastructure and Engineering (CC-NIE) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will enable the university to add a "Science DMZ" capability to the UW-Madison Advanced Computing Infrastructure (ACI). New networking and storage capabilities will provide the campus with capabilities that support high-volume bulk data transfer, remote experiment control and data visualization.

For many years, campus researchers have collaborated in unique ways to overcome these obstacles and obtain the computing resources they need. UW-Madison is a national model for organizing its cyberinfrastructure -- from hardware and software to the talents of individuals and groups -- to meet the needs of researchers. A leader in this effort is the Center for High Throughput Computing (CHTC), directed by UW-Madison Computer Sciences Professor Miron Livny, one of the co-principal investigators for CC-NIE project. CHTC aggregates computing cycles from across campus and beyond to match researchers’ needs with available resources.

"I am very pleased to be partnering with Professor Miron Livny and the NSF to extend our capabilities at UW-Madison to support science with advanced technological capabilities," said Bruce Maas, UW-Madison Vice Provost for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer and a co-PI for the CC-NIE project. "This grant, along with an earlier EAGER (Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research) award from NSF, enables us to pool our talents in Computer Sciences, the Division of Information Technology (DoIT), and other areas to really advance the infrastructure in support of research."

The two-year grant will fund hardware acquisitions to provide high-speed network connectivity to the DMZ and to national networks, including a 100-gigabit-per-second link to Internet2, the consortium led by more than 200 universities working to establish a leading-edge network capability for the national research community. The grant will also fund the network engineering staff needed to support and manage the upgraded infrastructure.

Today’s research activities are generating enormous amounts of data, and managing and processing that data has become increasingly difficult with existing computing capacity. Methods of data collection are more sophisticated and ubiquitous. Analysis of large data sets can subsequently derive even more data; for example, to identify trends.

Noteworthy examples of this explosion of data at UW-Madison include some partners in the CC-NIE grant: the Ice Cube project detecting neutrino particles at the South Pole, the Space Science and Engineering Center collecting satellite weather data, and UW scientists conducting particle physics research at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The proliferation of large research data sets is also occurring in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

While UW-Madison’s current network is functional, its limited capacity is an obstacle to research groups, which must design their data-intensive experiments based on what the university’s infrastructure can support. Another impediment is the pressing need to secure computing resources and data stores by adding layers of firewalls to campus networks. This reduces performance and raises configuration issues that hamper research work.

The CC-NIE grant will build on this model to leverage UW-Madison’s current computing capacity. The Science DMZ will tap existing research support services for networking, storage, and computational resources to create a gateway for the transfer of research data. The connectivity upgrade will help to overcome bandwidth limitations that now hamstring research efforts.

To take full advantage of the improved network’s capabilities, the campus must be able to dynamically route network traffic (for example, around protective firewalls) and tune network performance based on the specific traffic being carried. The CC-NIE grant from NSF will provide for a separate network, built on unused fiber-optic cable, that will link project research partners and the Science DMZ, using routers from Cisco Systems Inc. (another project partner) and a recently developed open standard called OpenFlow. Researchers will be able to use the OpenFlow network to run their experiments on the campus production network without modifying that network’s switches, routers, and other equipment.

OpenFlow is a prominent "software-defined networking" (SDN) architecture, which gives researchers the control and flexibility to optimize network switching/routing policies to meet the needs of their experiments. The OpenFlow network will run in parallel with the campus production network, and experiments and research traffic on it will pose no risk to ongoing network activity.

Nine campus research groups are partners in the CC-NIE grant: the Center for High Throughput Computing, IceCube, Space Science and Engineering Center, Open Science Grid, Wisconsin Energy Institute, Materials Science Center, UW Biotechnology Center, Engine Research Center, and the Laboratory for Optical and Computational Instrumentation. While the CC-NIE project will primarily benefit these groups, the infrastructure improvements and other innovations will pay dividends across the campus and state and help to promote a national paradigm of campus-level cyber-services to research.