Saturday, 2 January 2016

Looking back at 2015 - research computing

2015 has been a busy year in research computing at Birmingham. The team has gained two new members and one came back full-time into the team. These have been driven by the need to support new initiatives, for example supporting CCB and needs for research data management.

Getting major project developments out the door took up much of my time in 2015, rolling out our research data store and getting over the teething troubles with that. We got delayed a little by some unfortunate building work which cut fibres between our data centres and also an incident with the fire suppression system, but we worked through it all and got the solution out of the door along with our Sync'n'share solution based on PowerFolder.

With the research data store going live, we also needed to focus on how people move large volumes of data to it, and have been deploying a specialist fabric based network using Brocade VDX technology. This is pretty neat as it provides full layer 1 balancing of multiple links, which we can build up as we need additional bandwidth. Getting the final connections to our campus core took a little longer than anticipated but we got there and now have the network in two buildings for data generating equipment and we've already placed an order to deliver more locations in early 2016. As usual, things like getting access to wiring centres, or faulty building fibre have given us a little trouble, but we're now progressing well with this. Some aspects of the firewall/router product we purchased have caused us a number of headaches and more work than we'd have liked, but we're working through this with the supplier who seem engaged on getting us a fully working and reliable solution in early 2016.

I'll post a separate update on research clouds, but this has also taken a chunk of time, but also a number of opportunities, for example speaking at events, helping to develop strategies and being invited to join the RCUK working group on cloud to help identify and deliver cloud (public, private, hybrid) into supporting research in the UK.

Late 2015 has seen discussion come back about new data centres to help support the increasing demands of research computing, we'll hopefully hear in early 2016 if we'll get funding to develop this further. We did hear that the University is planning to support life-sciences with new storage and compute with a major investment, so we'll have a busy time designing and building this in 2016 as well as recruiting staff to support the investment!

Towards the end of the year, we took a major maintenance window of the HPC service. Although we weren't replacing anything, we will be adding new hardware in early 2016 and we needed to do some major upgrade work on the scheduler and resource manager in preparation for this as well as replacing our core network switches to enable us to scale out more easily. We also generally take this opportunity to apply firmware updates to all research infrastructure and of course did the Spectrum Scale 4.2 upgrade on our GPFS clusters!

We've also been busy working out how we can support the CLIMB project better, and we've now secured funding for a member of staff to join the team to help with this, so watch out in early January as we'll be recruiting a cloud computing person to help deliver the private research cloud.

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