UMaine Advanced Research Computing helps solve problems related to data storage and more

When working on a research project in nearly any discipline, it’s important to not only collect and analyze data, but to also make sure the data is saved and backed up. In fact, it’s a formal requirement of most funding organizations and a recommended practice even when not required, including at the University of Maine. Depending on the research area and involved disciplines, there is a spectrum of research data storage and computing needs. Some people only need a data back-up service, while others require large-scale parallel computing capabilities. In order to help researchers overcome difficulties related to their high-performance computing needs, UMaine’s Advanced Research Computing (ARC)  was created in 2019.

ARC’s mission is to: “support the University’s research mission by providing advanced high-performance computing expertise and services to researchers from across the University and beyond.”

There are a wide variety of research computing services available through ARC. These include providing access to reliable and cost-effective high-performance computing solutions, primary fast-access data storage, data back-up service, consultation and training services, as well as grant writing assistance. This portfolio of services is deeply rooted in helping clients identify and achieve their high-performance computing goals.

Kevin Wentworth and Matt McSpadden are two of ARC’s main team members. They both have strong backgrounds in Information Technology as well as customer service, which Wentworth and McSpadden agree is an important aspect of offering consultation and services to UMaine researchers.

“One of the needs ARC is fulfilling is the gap between stating “I know I can,” and asking “but how do I do it?” Wentworth explains. “As consultants, we want to be able to do more than offer advice. We want to be able to provide the best answer on what types of equipment would work best for your situation, or who has the best rate for the service you require. What we’re focused on is hearing about a problem or need and finding the best solution.”

“Our real selling point is that we’re accessible,” McSpadden says. “After talking with you, we can get a better understanding of what your needs are and then connect you with the proper answer, whether that’s a machine, a process, a person, or one of our other services.”

Solutions may originate from on-campus to providers located anywhere in the US. A network of partners has been established by ARC, considering local, regional, and national entities. At the national level, partners are capable of providing advanced, cloud-based computing solutions, such as the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) and the Ohio Supercomputer Center. Established agreements with national centers allows University of Maine faculty, staff, and students to gain access to massively parallel computing platforms, often eliminating the need and the high cost to purchase their own hardware locally.

“TACC and OSC, and other cloud-based computing providers like them, offer affordable access to leading-edge massively parallel machines that would not otherwise be available within the state of Maine,” according to Shane Moeykens, the Advanced Research Computing Director. “Over the last 20 years, there has been ubiquitous growth of centralized computing centers, both in the commercial sector and in academia. Federal programs, like NSF XSEDE, have facilitated access to national centers for years, but more generalized, broader access to these same facilities has been limited. However, TACC and OSC have been open to providing generalized access, through agreements that recognize the University of Maine System as a nonprofit entity.”

Moeykens adds, “on the national scale, a rural state like Maine is not equipped to replicate these types of systems, so TACC and OSC extending their services to Maine is incredibly helpful.” Of course, cloud computing doesn’t negate the need for local computing platform support in all instances, and therefore, ARC staff are also actively working with faculty to determine appropriate hardware solutions in local labs, and also partnering with local solution providers. “Each research lab at UMaine has their own unique requirements, so developing an inclusive portfolio of solutions to satisfy all user requirements in an optimal way is essential,” says Moeykens.

As ARC was getting started, the group surveyed and interviewed a wide variety of UMaine researchers to see what they should devote attention to. One of the identified major areas for needed improvement was for back-up data storage solutions. With this in mind, ARC partnered with the University of Maine System Advanced Computing Group (ACG) in order to set up a back-up storage hub housed on the University of Maine campus, with a sister storage system housed at the University of Southern Maine. Steve Cousins, ACG’s Systems Architect, did all of the hard work associated with designing and setting up the system. The performance of the data storage service is robust, and early adopters have expressed positive feedback. McSpadden is tasked with allocating this resource to faculty who currently lack a back-up service for research data at UMaine.

“This back-up service is free for any researcher who needs it,” McSpadden explains. “It’s important to have your data backed up in more than one location, just in case the worst-case scenario happens and you lose your valuable data, which unfortunately does occur on occasion. This resource will help minimize the frequency of data loss amongst UMaine researchers.”

The ARC group is excited to share their services with the UMaine community and beyond, and they know that many researchers will need to ask questions, which is something none of them feel should be a hindrance or an obstacle. “What we try to focus on when helping people is showing them that technology really can be of major assistance to what they’re trying to achieve,” Wentworth says. Further, commencing in fall 2020, McSpadden plans to be a part of a regular ‘health checkup’ for research labs and offices, to help researchers better understand where their computing and data storage setups may need improvement.

ARC personnel believe that UMaine’s research enterprise will be strengthened through greater adoption of high-performance computing technology. “The end goal is to make UMaine faculty aware of the plethora of resources that are already available, and then make sure that the processes for accessing those resources is low effort,” Moeykens says. “By reducing access barriers, building awareness, and supporting these technologies and services, greater participation in this growing research computing arena will result.”

UMaine ARC is associated with CORE and overseen by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School.