Big data, big ideas on display at CANHEIT / HPCS 2016


Two weeks ago, a group of Cyberans had the chance to attend the CANHEIT / HPCS conference in Edmonton. This was the first time that CANHEIT (Canadian Higher Education Information Technology) and HPCS (High Performance Computing Symposium) decided to hold their annual conferences together. Over 600 people gathered for four days of events, tours, awards, sessions and keynotes at the University of Alberta.

The Conference Veteran:

As a seasoned “conference veteran”, even I found that there were a lot of sessions to choose from! Given the mix of higher level and on-the-ground IT folks attending, the range of topics you could learn about went from encouraging more women to join IT, to “Emergent dynamics in a reconstruction of a neocortical microcircuit”. Many of these talks went over my head. Judging by the winded looks on some of the faces of my fellow attendees, it went over theirs as well.

Still, it was great to see some of the tech folks switching it up – systems administrators learning about the big compute needs of astronomy researchers; presidents of networking not-for-profits learning about research data privacy sensitives, etc.

My favourite sessions included Kevin Vadnais of the University of Lethbridge talking about “Assessing our readiness for a security breach”. He talked about his experience with running through a security breach preparedness exercise, and realizing the importance of having all involved departments (including IT, finance, HR, communications, as well as the upper execs) talking to each other and addressing the issues that would come up for each, separately. As a member of the non-IT, administrative team in my company, I appreciated his point that when a company faces a data breach, it’s not just the IT team who has to deal with it.

In line with the privacy concerns, Jamie Rosner of the University of British Columbia looked at the available technologies for genomics researchers to share large data files more securely (while acknowledging that many are currently using Dropbox, a major privacy no-no). This issue of finding secure yet convenient ways for researchers to share big data is a recurring one, and will be a theme at our own upcoming Cyber Summit on Using Technology Responsibly.

Big data and the issues of privacy, security, and finding room to store and transmit it all: a recurring topic that will no doubt dominate many such tech conferences in the years to come!

The Conference Newbie:

To the shock of some of my co-workers, I had never been to a conference. The whole process was a bit overwhelming, but thankfully my fellow Cyberans showed me the ropes. Now that I am a seasoned conference pro (*cough*…not really), I have put together some key takeaways that might be handy for those attending their first conference:

1. Plan, at least a little bit: Pick out the key sessions you really want to attend before you agree to other tasks, otherwise you may have to miss a session that everyone is raving about.

2. Get out of your comfort zone: I decided to go see the session entitled “Computational astrophysics: gravitational waves, black holes and neutron stars”. Minus the cool diagrams and animations, a lot of it was over my head (and the poorly designed slides made me shudder – comic sans is for comics, not slides on gravitational waves!), but ultimately, what I saw was pretty interesting.

3. Beware the food: I ate way too much! The “nutritional” breaks were my downfall. Hand pies, cookies, scones, and muffins, oh my! Kudos to the CANHEIT/HPCS food committee for the excellent food selection.

5. Always carry your hotel key: even if you are just setting something outside the door. I mean, I would never manage to get myself locked out of my hotel room, no, not me…

6. You can always learn something new: I was unsure how much of the “Sense and sensibility—visual design principles for scientific data” session with Martin Krzywinski would be new or insightful, but I was glad I attended. I was amazed how Krzywinski could take complicated data related to genomic / cancer research and structure it in simple, clear visualized form. His design aesthetic will be the perfect inspiration when it comes time to design my next set of figures and infographics.

7. Ask questions: People are happy to talk about their experiences and what they do. The IT sector tends to use a lot of acronyms, so make sure to ask about any you don’t know (that carries the bonus of watching them squirm while they try and remember what it stands for).

Big Data Demo:

Last year, we spoke about a demonstration of a big data transfer technology that was carried out at Supercomputing 2015. At that time, Obsidian, an Edmonton-based company, used its Longbow tool to send large volumes of genetics research data from the University of Alberta to the showroom floor in Austin, Texas (via the Research and Education Network) at a rate of 928 MB/s (7.4 Gigabits/s).

This year, Obsidian was demonstrating the same technology at the CANHEIT / HPCS conference. But this time, the large data files were being sent around the globe (once again, via national Research and Education Networks, including CyberaNet).

Working with Inifiniband technology (which allows for very high-speed data transfer, but was originally developed for use over very short distances), Obsidian and its global tech partners were able to transfer an encrypted genomic workflow from Edmonton to Singapore, the UK, Poland, and back to Edmonton.

Having the capability to send large genomics files in a fast and secure way could open up new collaboration opportunities for researchers working on disease identification and treatments, at the very least. The system allows “multiple smaller clusters to aggregate into extremely powerful geo-distributed virtual supercomputers”.

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