Struggling with big data? Campus’ Advanced Computing Initiative can help

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.04.22 PMAs scientists start generating more and more “big data” in the course of their research, the need for large-scale computing to process the data grows. Computer simulations of biological and physical processes, for instance, have become extremely complex, and faculty members have struggled to self-provision the large research computers and experienced IT staff needed to do this kind of work. To help meet the expanding need for resources and support in this area, campus has made significant investments in recent years in high-throughput computing through the Advanced Computing Initiative (ACI).

As described on the ACI website, the initiative offers research computing-related resources and services to scientists across the UW-Madison campus, including computation services, skills training and technical support in data storage and networking to help advance scholarly discoveries.

“The goal is to lower the barriers to entry into research computing, so researchers don’t have to shoulder the burden of maintaining all of that [computing] infrastructure for their individual programs. This also produces institutional savings at the same time,” says Phil Barak, CALS’ director of computing and information technology.

CALS faculty members have been actively involved in guiding this strategic initiative. Bacteriology professor Katrina Forest chaired the Information Technology Committee, a campus-wide shared governance organization, for four years. During that time she led a small working group that gathered broad input on researchers’ needs and drafted a plan for campus research computing that resonated with the top level of campus leadership and received funding. Forest and fellow bacteriology professor Trina McMahon are both current members of the ACI’s Faculty Steering Committee, which is charged with helping to set policies and priorities for the use ACI of resources.

A number of CALS researchers are already using ACI’s large-scale computing resources, including agronomy’s Shawn Kaeppler and Natalia DeLeon, who use it to process genome sequence data generated through their corn phenotyping project.

Forest points out that while the hardware resources are critical, the ACI is much more than just a collection of computers available to users. There’s a lot of emphasis on training.

“The ACI is very heavily focused on enabling people to do better science,” she says. “Members of the CALS community are taking advantage of services organized and sponsored by ACI, including students participating in concentrated ‘boot camps’ for computational skills. And a CALS PhD student was among those chosen for this year’s competitive ACI Fellows program.”

For more information, send an email to or visit the ACI website, where you can also subscribe to the ACI mailing list.