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EXCLUSIVE – Flash-forward to the future of research: Bringing together supercomputing, virtualisation, automation and deep learning

EXCLUSIVE - Flash-forward to the future of research: Bringing together supercomputing

In this second part of the interview (read the first part here), Dr. Tan Tin Wee tells us what is engaging his mind at present. He shares his vision of the not-too-distant future, with supercomputers built in housing developments and a seamless bench-to-bedside flow to dynamically create precise personalised medical treatments.

Dr. Tan hasn’t ceased his constant striving to explore and expand the frontiers of technology. He talks about coming back full cycle, as technology reaches a point where everything he has worked on during the past 26 years as a professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine comes together to potentially transform healthcare and biomedical research.

Since June 2015, Dr. Tan has been in the position of Director of the National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC) in Singapore.

Smart approach to supercomputing

Wearing his latest hat as Director of the supercomputing centre of Singapore,Dr Tan explained how Singapore is choosing a smarter approach to becoming a player in Exascale computing. Singapore has neither the billions of dollars to throw at such a challenge, nor does it have problems that can reach that scale, at least, not yet.

However, there would be requirements to crunch genomic information, which is not as ‘big data’ as nuclear physics or Hadron Collider type projects, but still needs significant computational power.

One possibility is to work on genomic precision medicine interfacing with hospital healthcare delivery. 

The Long Fat Pipe Problem

Today we have access to terabytes of portable hard drives for a few hundred dollars. Storage is cheap. And massive amounts of data are being generated as the world gets more and more connected. But the speed with which the Internet can support big data transfers over global distances has remained severely limited.

One terabyte of data cannot be transferred from one global location to another through the Internet in a reasonable timeframe. Today, it is probably still cheaper to ship terabytes in a hard disk drive via courier.

Over global distances the data throughput suffers from the so-called Long Fat Pipe problem (bandwidth-delay product). Unless there is careful tuning, increasing the bandwidth over global distances where there is a long round-trip time, the throughput drops significantly.

Laying out the contours of the problem, Dr. Tan said, “TCP/IP is a cold war technology. It is a communications protocol. It is not specifically optimised for big data transmission.

For supercomputers, InfiniBand is already being used as the most popular interconnect protocol, but  only within  the confines of HPC data centres.  So Dr. Tan and his team at NSCC explored another option, long-range InfiniBand. Now, this technology by Obsidian Strategics has been around since the early 2000s but no one had deployed it for academic research networks, other than the military, NASA and a few banks.

Dr. Tan and his team demonstrated that a global network of InfiniBand interconnections could work, providing a more efficient protocol for transmitting big data over large trans-oceanic distances. (OpenGov has previously reported in greater detail on the work on next-generation networks being done at A*STAR.)

Dr. Tan said, “Now how do we build the infrastructure to allow the supercomputers talk to each other and compute together on a single problem. That is our current challenge, how to build a galaxy of supercomputers, over high speed networks.”

Image representative of NSCC data centre (Courtesy of NSCC)

The cooling problem

It has been estimated that data centres of the world consume between 5 to 10% of total electricity consumption. And this is a growing number. Every time we see an email attachment or we share a video clip on Whatsapp, it is stored on a spinning disk somewhere and this disk must continuously spin for the next ten years at least. Making the data readily accessible, and replicating in backups in multiple data centres is neither scalable nor environmentally sustainable, as the world's storage needs grow to the Yottabyte range. Hence, Dr. Tan is searching for truly creative solutions.

Like big data storage, densely packed supercomputers also emit a lot of heat. This could be combined with a heat requiring industrial system. Better still, the facility could produce cold output to cool these systems. 

 As an example of this potential industrial symbiosis, Dr. Tan said, “I want to build my next supercomputer next to the Singapore LNG receiving terminal in Jurong. They have minus 162 degrees cold energy which they currently throw out into the sea. Give me the cold sea water and I can cool my data centre, without any additional cost. Right now, we are venting the heat out to the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, which the LNG plant could use for regasification of the liquefied natural gas.”
         
         
         

The low grade heat generated from a data centre which is otherwise pretty useless, could actually provide hot water supply for domestic uses. Thus, housing estates could actually house supercomputers using long-range InfiniBand connections.

The future of research- Bringing it all together

Dr. Tan feels he has come full circle now in his journey, “The last 25 years of my working life has been characterised by very interesting developments. I never imagined as molecular biologist that I would run an Internet service provider. But I did and I innovated on it. It helped the bioinformatics community. Now I am running a supercomputing centre. And I am thinking of combining HPC with the Internet, with biology, and with hospital health care information to provide better health care for an ever-increasingly aging population. It is about putting all the disparate pieces together.”

Dr. Tan said that he would like to build a research lab of the future on top of this green and globally interconnected supercomputer network. In 1992-93, before the Internet era, he wrote in an article that researchers will need not go to the library to search for the latest journals. They will be able to search, download and read scientific literature instantaneously. Today it is a given.

In his words, this is the what the future of research could look like:

 “Today I would like to make another prediction. Soon research scientists will be able to carry out research at the speed of thought. You think about the scientific experiment, interrogate databases, design the experiment and you ‘order’ it. Virtual laboratories, like transcriptic.com and emeraldcloudlabs.com have already started offering their services online.
         
         
         
         

The results will be generated by technicians controlling robots working in virtualised highly inter-connected scientific laboratories. Quality of service agreements would guarantee you the best results each time. Of course, you must incorporate experimental control, and check the provenance of the data sets. The resulting data sets can be aggregated and placed in searchable data banks. They can also be sent to deep learning engines.

Using the bench-to-bedside (research bench to hospital bedside) workflows and computational pipelines, we can create personalised medical treatments dynamically and with great precision. You can have cures developed on the fly. The scientists and the doctors will be working together to discover what disease the person is suffering from, based on genomic analysis. Drugs and vaccines will be designed with molecular modelling and machine learning.

Then an automated laboratory will be able to verify and deliver experimental results to ensure that the treatment given to that patient is safe and will lead to a good prognosis.

That is the future I would like to be actively involved in: Research at the speed of thought.

PARTNER

Qlik’s vision is a data-literate world, where everyone can use data and analytics to improve decision-making and solve their most challenging problems. A private company, Qlik offers real-time data integration and analytics solutions, powered by Qlik Cloud, to close the gaps between data, insights and action. By transforming data into Active Intelligence, businesses can drive better decisions, improve revenue and profitability, and optimize customer relationships. Qlik serves more than 38,000 active customers in over 100 countries.

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As a Titanium Black Partner of Dell Technologies, CTC Global Singapore boasts unparalleled access to resources.

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Planview has one mission: to build the future of connected work. Our solutions enable organizations to connect the business from ideas to impact, empowering companies to accelerate the achievement of what matters most. Planview’s full spectrum of Portfolio Management and Work Management solutions creates an organizational focus on the strategic outcomes that matter and empowers teams to deliver their best work, no matter how they work. The comprehensive Planview platform and enterprise success model enables customers to deliver innovative, competitive products, services, and customer experiences. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, with locations around the world, Planview has more than 1,300 employees supporting 4,500 customers and 2.6 million users worldwide. For more information, visit www.planview.com.

SUPPORTING ORGANISATION

SIRIM is a premier industrial research and technology organisation in Malaysia, wholly-owned by the Minister​ of Finance Incorporated. With over forty years of experience and expertise, SIRIM is mandated as the machinery for research and technology development, and the national champion of quality. SIRIM has always played a major role in the development of the country’s private sector. By tapping into our expertise and knowledge base, we focus on developing new technologies and improvements in the manufacturing, technology and services sectors. We nurture Small Medium Enterprises (SME) growth with solutions for technology penetration and upgrading, making it an ideal technology partner for SMEs.

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HashiCorp provides infrastructure automation software for multi-cloud environments, enabling enterprises to unlock a common cloud operating model to provision, secure, connect, and run any application on any infrastructure. HashiCorp tools allow organizations to deliver applications faster by helping enterprises transition from manual processes and ITIL practices to self-service automation and DevOps practices. 

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IBM is a leading global hybrid cloud and AI, and business services provider. We help clients in more than 175 countries capitalize on insights from their data, streamline business processes, reduce costs and gain the competitive edge in their industries. Nearly 3,000 government and corporate entities in critical infrastructure areas such as financial services, telecommunications and healthcare rely on IBM’s hybrid cloud platform and Red Hat OpenShift to affect their digital transformations quickly, efficiently and securely. IBM’s breakthrough innovations in AI, quantum computing, industry-specific cloud solutions and business services deliver open and flexible options to our clients. All of this is backed by IBM’s legendary commitment to trust, transparency, responsibility, inclusivity and service.