University of Vermont

Vermont Advanced Computing Core

Vermont Advanced Computing Core Accelerates Research

Joshua Bongard, new director of the supercomputer facility, invites faculty and students from all disciplines

Vermont Advanced Computing Core
The Vermont Advanced Computing Core gives faculty and students access to high-powered computing here on campus, aiding research discoveries in the age of 'big data.' (Photo: Sally McCay)

For 10 years, the Vermont Advanced Computing Core — the VACC, UVM’s on-campus supercomputer — has supported the research of more than 338 faculty and students from across the university. “And our faculty and student body is changing — we’re attracting more and more people who are computationally minded,” says professor of computer science Joshua Bongard, who was appointed the new director of the VACC on Nov. 11.

“Many of these researchers may not be computer scientists,” Bongard says, “but they are using a lot of computation to solve problems in their areas,” — from disease biology to climate modeling. With support from the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research, Bongard aims to make the VACC available and attractive to more researchers across campus.

“With the growth of ‘big data’ research opportunities increasing almost daily, the VACC has become a unique and invaluable facility,” notes vice-president for research Richard Galbraith, “positioning the University of Vermont well for highest-impact discovery and innovation in our digital age.”

Consider brain scanning, for example. “When you scan a human being’s brain there is a large amount of data,” says Bongard, who directs the Morphology, Evolution and Cognition Laboratory in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. “Usually, there is so much that you cannot analyze it on a laptop or a high-powered desktop. You need to move that data to either the VACC or the cloud.”

Bongard is eager to have researchers who are new to high-powered computing work with him and the staff at the VACC. For users of the facility that require shorter computing time, the resource will remain free of charge. “Thanks to the support of Provost David Rosowsky, the previous series of one-time budgets to support the VACC has been reassigned to the base budget of the Office of the Vice President for Research,” Galbraith notes, helping to stabilize and expand the VACC’s offerings.

This includes greater outreach and opportunity for students to use the VACC through classes and their own research projects. “Our society as a whole is also becoming more data driven,” Bongard says, “so it is imperative that we train our undergraduate and graduate students in large-scale computation.”

For heavy-duty users of the VACC, Bongard and Galbraith are committed to making the facility competitive with online supercomputing tools, often called “the cloud.” “The VACC comes with a reduced price tag and on-campus support that you can’t get out there on the cloud,” Bongard says.

For some researchers, Bongard sees the VACC as “the on-ramp to the cloud,” he says. “Test things out on your laptop, then do some more high-powered computation on the VACC for a few weeks or months.” For many faculty and students, that will be sufficient. “But if the problem that you’re tackling requires even more computation, then you might seek funding to move your work out onto the cloud,” he says — with the VACC as a way to get going in that direction.

Bongard will lead the VACC staff team of Andrea Elledge, assistant director, Mike Austin, director of systems architecture and administration, and Jim Lawson, senior system administrator. “I am optimistic that the stabilization of the VACC will enable our faculty and staff to consolidate and build on the enormous successes they have already demonstrated,” Richard Galbraith says.

For example, earlier this year, UVM psychiatry researcher Hugh Garavan and his team used the VACC to help with a brain study that gives a much clearer sense of which teenagers are at risk for becoming binge drinkers. His study appeared in the journal Nature. And applied mathematicians Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth published a seminal paper “Measuring the Happiness of Large-Scale Written Expression: Songs, Blogs, and Presidents,” that has been cited more than 150 times and led to media attention around the world. Their study relied on the computing power of the VACC. “Now we want to make sure that it supports the next generation of UVM research and scholarship,” Bongard says.

The VACC was made possible by founding grants from NASA and with strong support from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Vermont EPSCoR. Affectionately known by its users as the "Bluemoon Cluster," the UVM VACC supercomputer has been largely developed with IBM systems architecture. Since its founding, the facility has received three major upgrades with IBM high-performance computing hardware.