Greater than the sum of its parts: university computing in high-energy physics

The University of Maryland is just one of the many universities that contributes computing resources to particle physics and other research at Fermilab. Photo: John Consoli/University of Maryland

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of occasional articles on computing contributions made by Fermilab’s user universities.

Building on Fermilab Today‘s University Profiles, the Computing Sector followed up with the 2012 university participants to inquire further about the roles their computing departments play in particle physics research programs. This article, the first in a series, focuses on eight randomly selected universities who responded to our questions.

A survey of this kind naturally invites comparisons; however, the responses were unified in indicating the importance of collective effort from different university computing departments in the various experiment collaborations. Without exception, each university that responded contributes software and local computing resources used by remote experimenters. The software is predominantly for CMS, although respondents also mentioned ATLAS, BESIII (at IHEP in China), CDMS, DZero, MINOS, NOvA and theoretical studies. In terms of computing resources, the majority of universities in this set are members of the Open Science Grid, and most are CMS Tier-3s. It is this great collaborative effort—supplying intellectual energy as new software and meting out experiments’ operational needs as local computing—that makes experiments like CMS possible and illustrates the critical role each computing department plays.

Nevertheless, responses show that each institution is also proud of what sets its computing apart. Some concentrated on computing resources. Tulika Bose from Boston University highlighted being a Tier-2 site as giving “access to the very best in network and bandwidth capabilities.” Hector Mendez from the University of Puerto Rico, the only CMS computing facility in the Caribbean, emphasized its provision of “crucial resources for our physics analyses and a way to overcome the bandwidth restrictions we have.” Marguerite Tonjes at the University of Maryland noted it was “one of the early small CMS Tier-3s that extensively documented the setup and configuration of its site.” Finally, Gregory Pawloski from the University of Minnesota stated it “operates the largest dedicated computing facility for BESIII outside of the host laboratory.”

Others highlighted the institutes they are home to. Todd Adams from Florida State University identified the Supercomputer Computations Research Institute, “well-known for its work in supercomputer applications and science research.” Richard Cavanaugh from the University of Illinois at Chicago mentioned its Electronics Visualization Laboratory, which, since 2009, has been developing CAVE2, “the next-generation virtual reality environment.”

Finally, some specified projects. Avto Kharchilava, Ia Iashvili and Salvatore Rappoccio drew attention to the State University of New York at Buffalo’s “Research Highlights,” which includes “building a computer that can understand images as well as a human.” Sridhara Rao Dasu from the University of Wisconsin added that its campus grid, GLOW, “has fostered the growth of a very active community of researchers hooked on high-throughput computing.”

The strengths of all these universities, which independently take on the challenges of computing in high-energy physics, are incredibly powerful when channeled into experiment collaborations; the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.

Clementine Jones, member of the Computing Sector Communications Group