Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Lands $7.6-Million NSF Grant

Four-Year Project to Prototype the Data Exacell, a Next-Generation System for Integrated Data Storage and Analytics

Monday, Oct. 21, 2013

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has approved a grant to Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) to develop a prototype Data Exacell (DXC), a next-generation system for storing, handling and analyzing vast amounts of data. The $7.6-million, four-year grant will allow PSC to architect, build, test and refine DXC in collaboration with selected scientific research projects that face unique challenges in working with and analyzing “Big Data.”


“We are very pleased with this opportunity to continue working cooperatively to advance the state of the art based on our historical strengths in information technologies and to apply the resulting advances to a wide range of important scientific research,” say Subra Suresh, the new president of Carnegie Mellon University, and Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.

“The focus of this project is data storage, retrieval and analysis for what is known as Big Data,” says Michael Levine, PSC scientific director. “The Data Exacell prototype builds on our successful, innovative activities with a variety of data storage and analysis systems.”

Big Data is a broad field including challenges from both traditional high performance computing and other fields of research that depend on methodologies more focused on data collection and analysis than on computation. These fields not only require very large amounts of data (the European Bioinformatics Institute alone now stores 20 petabytes of life sciences data) but also require access methods and performance beyond the capability of traditional large data stores. The Data Exacell project will directly address these required enhancements.

“What’s needed is a distributed, integrated system that allows researchers to collaboratively analyze cross-domain data without the performance roadblocks that are typically associated with Big Data,” says Nick Nystrom, director of strategic applications at PSC. “One result of this effort will be a robust, multifunctional system for Big Data analytics that will be ready for expansion into a large, production system.”

The core of the Data Exacell will be SLASH2, PSC’s production software for managing and moving Big Data. It is currently represented by the Data Supercell (DSC), a 4-petabyte, disk-based, production storage system that combines archival-quality storage with access times comparable to data stored on a user’s own computer and able to support remote access. Data Exacell will incorporate updated, DSC-type storage and high performance analysis resources, both existing and new.

The Data Exacell will concentrate primarily on enhancing essential functionality for conducting data-intensive research. “The Data Exacell will have a heavy focus on how the system will be used,” says J. Ray Scott, PSC director of systems and operations. “We’ll start with a targeted set of users who will get results but who are experienced enough to help us work through the challenges of making it production quality.”

PSC external collaborators from a variety of fields will work closely with the center’s scientists to ensure the systems applicability to existing problems and its ability to serve as a model for future systems. The collaborating fields are expected to include genomics, radio astronomy, analysis of multimedia data, and other fields.