Four Loyola University Maryland faculty members have been awarded a $280,120 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a high-performance computing (HPC) cluster to expand research opportunities for faculty and students.

An HPC cluster consists of multiple computers that are networked together so they can run comprehensive analyses from one user (or many users), without compromising performance or speed. Users log into an HPC cluster remotely; then the cluster, which will be placed in a server room at the Baltimore campus, will be supported by a systems administrator. Loyola’s setup could be up and running by the end of the fall 2016 semester.

High computing power will save Loyola researchers from relying on outside computer resources or being limited to projects that cannot be studied within existing computer restraints. Thus, the new cluster will present great opportunities for students and faculty, said Jeremy Schwartz, associate professor of economics. “The business world is getting more and more complex, and more data-driven,” he said. “The questions in which our faculty are interested need more computer resources to answer.”

From sophisticated economic models to applications that match workers to appropriate jobs, being able to crunch large amounts of data will speed up and expand many facets of research, Schwartz said.

“There are many possible applications,” he said, “even the question of how you optimally route products through a chain.”

Along with Schwartz, the grant — the writing and submitting for which took more than a year — was awarded to Megan Olsen, assistant professor of computer science and principal investigator on the grant; Biggi Albrecht, associate professor of chemistry; and David Binkley, professor of computer science.

Solving Problems

HPC clusters are generally used to solve two types of problems, said Olsen: “First, a problem where you have a lot of data you need to analyze; and second, any kind of problem where you have a lot of different pieces to compute before you can get to a correct answer.”

For example, producing a computer simulation of predator versus prey behavior requires programming many different potential interactions, so an HPC cluster is needed to produce a simulation more quickly. “The size of such a simulation on a regular computer is limited,” she said.

The research projects of the four faculty members, along with seven additional projects led by other faculty in their departments and faculty from physics and engineering, will be the first to run on the HPC cluster. Training will then be offered to any Loyola faculty member interested in tapping the HPC cluster for research, while undergraduate students at Loyola interested in research will receive training, as well. Unlike faculty, most students do not have access to outside research computing resources.

Some of the research projects identified in the award abstract include developing techniques leading to drugs to fight severe acute respiratory syndrome; understanding protein-DNA interactions for biotechnology applications; and providing policymakers with a better understanding of how job competition and human capital allocation influence the optimal design of unemployment insurance.

Training Key

The training aspect of the grant is important since training and will help users optimize their time with the HPC cluster, said Christine Abunassar, CEO of Think Big!, a technology consulting firm based in Columbia.

“More and more businesses are getting into big data, and now the big data vendors are hoping to aggregate data and analyze it,” Abunassar said.

So many new advances are being made so quickly that she compared HPC clusters to new cars that don’t require a key to start. “We’re used to putting the key in the car to turn it on, but some newer cars don’t require a key. Still, the car dealers don’t always tell people they need to step on the brake to start the car,” she said, “so they have the latest in car technology but they don’t know how to start it.”

Attracting Talent

The industry-leading research being done at area universities continues to attract forward-thinking scholars and talent to this area, said Lawrence Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

“Eventually this research is given the opportunity to enter into the marketplace where it can be used by entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses; which, in turn, attracts companies [that] want to be near this type of innovation,” he said. “This relationship between the local educational institutions and the business community helps contribute to a more diverse and productive economy.”