Power to computing

31 July 2011
Professor Mark Gahegan
Professor Mark Gahegan

When the earthquake hit Christchurch in February, emergency response teams around the country quickly called up large sets of data and images from the New Zealand Defence Force’s Geospatial Intelligence Organisation and New Zealand Aerial Mapping to make informed decisions about how to help.

This rapid access to large amounts of vital information was made possible by the University of Auckland’s Centre for e-Research. Established in 2009, the centre’s high-performance computing capability and data storage, as well as expert staff, are transforming the work of New Zealand scientists.

“High-performance computing and its related infrastructure have become an indispensable part of modern science,” says Director of the Centre, Professor Mark Gahegan. “Researchers regularly face complex computational challenges in their work and e-Research works closely with them to tackle these challenges. Computer scientists and the research community are now deeply engaged – it’s not just about providing the hardware.”

The Centre for e-Research connects researchers to BeSTGRID (Broadband-Enabled Science and Technology GRID), which is led by The University of Auckland and includes all New Zealand universities and some Crown Research Institutes. BeSTGRID allows extensive data sharing and data processing via a coordinated data fabric that spans the country.

In the days following the Christchurch earthquake, eResearch handled more than 660GB of data storage and distribution across New Zealand, with the help of BeSTGRID and KAREN (Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network). KAREN is a super-fast private internet dedicated to the New Zealand research and education sector.

“We’ve moved past radio communication and a paper map,” says Mark. “Disaster response now requires and generates massive amounts of data with hundreds of gigabytes streaming daily.”

A world away from using e-Research to help a devastated city, the University’s Auckland’s Cancer Society Research Centre is creating new drugs with the same technology. A computer technique called virtual screening can rapidly scan hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds to find one that might block the action of certain proteins implicated in a specific cancer.

Instead of taking weeks, virtual screening does the sleuthing job in a day.

The extra computing resources also enable researchers to make detailed investigations of the interactions between drugs and targeted proteins, without the use of a more traditional biological “wet lab”.

The Centre of e-Research has also just been selected to host the National e-Science Infrastructure (NeSI), to be built over the next four years. NeSI supports the Government’s priorities for research and economic growth and it has invested $27.4 million in the project. “NeSI will greatly enhance the centre’s work in using advanced information technology and high-performance computing for research,” says Mark.

NeSI brings together new and existing supercomputer hubs at The University of Auckland, Canterbury University, the University of Otago, NIWA, AgResearch and Landcare Research. It will use KAREN to connect researchers throughout the country to its national data and computing infrastructure.

The NeSI project is an important and much-needed infrastructure investment for science in New Zealand, says Mark. “New Zealand relies on scientific research to support its fundamental industries, and research institutions around the country require this step-change in computational ability.”