NCSA 25th Anniversary Video

2011 marks the 25th Anniversary of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The anniversary celebrates the many innovations the organization has to offer not only to the University of Illinois, but to the world.

“We’re doing, general scientific research, so that could be astronomy, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, it’s really wide range of different topics that people are researching.” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

And it’s mostly done with the help of supercomputers, a box-like structure that constitutes the fastest and most powerful computer at the time.

“Exactly, we just want the box that has the processors in it that’s going to do the math really really rapidly and that’s the value that they really have for scientists and engineers. People are trying to do simulations of the real world, run their mathematical models, analyze a lot of data, and they just need something that does a whole lot of math, really really fast.” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

Studies using supercomputers have been applied to medicine, weather, and the humanities.

“We do see on our side of things, on the research side, that more and more researchers in different fields are figuring out ways that they can use supercomputers. So classically people always thought it’s just really hard science problems things like physics and engineering. Well now people are also realizing that in the humanities and social sciences, there are hard problems there too that could benefit from supercomputers.” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

For example, NCSA and civil engineering professors at the U of I work together to study the effects of seismic activity on buildings. NCSA provides the software and the scientists plug in their formulas and research into the software.

“We help put together a framework, we didn’t do the science. The scientists do the science but we put together the framework so scientists can put together their modules and then gathered together their data, and run models on this data using their simulation modules, and do an engineering-based model of what may happen.” Danny Powell, Executive Director, NCSA

Supercomputers weren’t as welcome in the beginning into the scientific world as they are now.

“Back then, it was not as broadly accepted that running simulations on a supercomputer was a reasonable way of doing science. I remember visiting another lab back in the early days, and it was a chemistry lab, and on the door they had a poster that said “Real Scientists Don’t Use Computers”. And so, back then it was a matter of, for us exploring what these things were good for, and also then training scientists in how they could be useful to them and training them in the nuts and bolts of how to do that.” Alan B. Craig, Research Scientist

NCSA’s most popular innovation is Mosaic, not the first browser ever created…

“but it was kind of the most popular one at the time. It came out in 1993, it was different from the other browsers that had been available, because it was, just much more user-friendly…you could have pictures and icons and bookmarks, and those were things that were brand new.” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

In fact, this innovation was created by U of I undergrads.

“You give them a lot of leeway and see what they come up with. And they proposed the projects that they were going to work on. And we said, ‘It sounds pretty cool go for it,’ and Mosaic was one of those groups that came out of that kind of an effort” Danny Powell, Executive Director, NCSA

The largest and newest innovation of NCSA is the Blue Waters Project. This 208 million dollar project will be launched later this year. Although it will introduce a new level of speed for supercomputers, speed isn’t the focus.

“It could be theoretically really fast, but if no one’s is using it productively, that’s not what we want.” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

The first supercomputer created in the 1980’s was about as powerful as your desktop or laptop. Today, these computers can do quadrillions of calculations per second…

“So in 25 years what used to be a supercomputer has been condensed down into something that we all have at home, or at school, at work, that we carry around with us and we kind of take, for granted.” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

What does the future look like?

“So I like to imagine that 25 years in the future, maybe these big supercomputers that we are talking about like Blue Waters, is all of that power going to be condensed down into something small that everybody has in their homes and that everyone takes for granted?” Trish Barker, NCSA Spokesperson

Aside from checking Facebook or Twitter, what would you use your personal supercomputer for?

Check out more information on the current projects of NCSA at ncsa.illinois.edu.

For UI-7 I’m Caroline Pahl.

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