Solving increasingly complex problems with supercomputers
Jon Calhoun of Clemson University is leading a new project aimed at helping engineers and scientists use supercomputers to solve increasingly large problems, potentially clearing the way for new research ranging from predicting the weather to designing better airplanes.
Calhoun, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the techniques he and his students are developing could help move data more efficiently, a big factor in supercomputer performance.
“Everything in modern life from shampoo to the car we drive to the plane we fly on is designed and simulated using these large systems,” he said. “The work we do should be transferable to these application domains such that engineers and scientists can run larger, more detailed experiments without having to go out and spend millions of dollars on a new system. They would also be able to save and analyze more results.”
Calhoun’s work is funded by a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. The awards go to faculty members early in their careers and are celebrated in higher education because they are seen as a sign of future success.
Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research at Clemson, said that Calhoun’s award is among six new CAREER awards, one U.S. Army young-investigator award and one DARPA Young Faculty Award at Clemson so far this year.
“They represent the future of Clemson University, and we are proud of their accomplishments,” Karanfil said. “I congratulate each one of them. I also want to recognize all those who help with junior faculty professional development, including everyone involved in the Clemson CAREER Academy.”
The academy helps junior faculty members with some of the administrative tasks that go into CAREER awards, including interpreting guidelines, developing nomination letters and proofreading.
“I found the academy’s services very helpful in developing a successful proposal,” Calhoun said. “It’s an immense honor to win a CAREER proposal. It’s validation not only of my hard work, but also of the hard work of those who helped and mentored me.”
One of the easiest ways of making data movement faster is to move less data, Calhoun said. How to do that is a fundamental question he is trying to answer in his research
Calhoun’s approach involves a technique called “lossy compression” that allows him to reduce data size.
“If I put files in a ZIP archive,” he said. “They are smaller in size, so they are easier to send, but with lossy compression, you don’t get the same data on the other side.”
He said it’s the same idea as taking a picture of a lake, for example. A three-megapixel shot and an 18-megapixel shot convey the same information, but one is smaller than the other and is more pixelated due to lossy compression.
“The difficulty from the scientific perspective is that we’re not talking about images,” Calhoun said. “We’re talking about physical variables, such as temperature, pressure and velocity. How can we relate notions of loss in these variables when you’re doing these simulations that require the results to be accurate? If you’re simulating the next airplane or predicting the weather, you want results at the end of the simulation that scientists and engineers can act upon.”
Hai Xiao, chair of the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said that receiving a CAREER award is one of the nation’s highest honors for a young faculty member.
“Dr. Calhoun’s excellence as a teacher and scholar make him a superb choice for a CAREER award,” Xiao said. “He is well positioned for a long, successful career in higher education.”
At least one undergraduate and one graduate student will work full time on the research, Calhoun said. He will also be looking to recruit others, in part through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.
Also as part of the CAREER award project, Calhoun is planning to teach supercomputing skills to undergraduates in science, technology, engineering and math. They will use Raspberry Pi compute boards and networking cables to build mini versions of supercomputers that can fit on a desktop.
“When they go off to graduate school or get jobs in industry, they will have skills that surpass what most undergraduates have,” Calhoun said “It can make them much more employable and much more attractive to graduate schools.”
Daniel Noneaker, associate dean of research in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said Calhoun’s CAREER award positions him as a role model in research and education.
“Dr. Calhoun’s academic accomplishments are building a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in higher education,” Noneaker said. “I congratulate him and look forward to watching his career continue to grow.”
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, also offered his congratulations.
“Dr. Calhoun’s CAREER award is a testament to his creativity, hard work, high caliber of research and the exceptional education experiences he is creating for his students,” Gramopadhye said. “The award is richly deserved.”