U Part of World’s Ultimate IT Team

The world’s most important scientific facilities, from the CERN Large Hadron Collider to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, deal with massive amounts of data every day that are mined, stored, analyzed and visualized. It’s a colossal task that requires help from the top minds in data management to handle.

So the National Science Foundation (NSF) is turning to expert computer scientists from the University of Utah’s School of Computing and five other top universities, to help these facilities and other research projects manage their data in faster and more affordable ways.

The CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is one of many of the world’s most important scientific facilities and research projects that will get help from team members from the University of Utah’s School of Computing and five other universities on how to best manage their scientific data.

Members of the U’s School of Computing are part of the new CI Compass, an NSF Center of Excellence dedicated to helping these research facilities cope with their “data lifecycle” more effectively.

“The NSF has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in large facilities, such as massive telescopes and oceanographic observatories. The problem is that each have become a technological island, and it’s difficult for them to complete their scientific mission and get up to speed in their data needs,” says U School of Computing professor Valerio Pascucci, who is director of the U’s Center for Extreme Data Management Analysis and Visualization and co-lead on the CI Compass project. “They don’t have sufficient internal expertise. So we work with each of them to advise them on the latest solutions and modernize their software infrastructure, to do things faster or cheaper, and to make sure they don’t become stale and outdated.”

Joining the U in this new center are researchers from Indiana University, Texas Tech University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Southern California. In addition to Pascucci (pictured), the U team also includes School of Computing research associate professor Robert Ricci, and researchers Giorgio Scorzelli and Steve Petruzza.

The team will be helping as many as 25 of the NSF’s major facilities and research projects including the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole, the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory in Michigan, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at the California Institute of Technology.

Each of these facilities and projects deal with terabytes and even petabytes (one petabyte is a million gigabytes) of data that goes through a “data lifecycle” of being mined, analyzed, stored and distributed to the public, Pascucci says. CI Compass will not only help them update to the latest hardware and software to manage the data, the center’s team will also train facility and project researchers “to empower them to do things on their own,” he says. “Our goal is to make sure they don’t depend on us long term.”

The center will also help ensure that each of the facilities are not duplicating problems, are more easily sharing information, and not using incompatible technologies.

The idea for the CI Compass began three years ago with a pilot project that worked with five NSF-funded facilities. The goal was to identify how the center could serve as a forum for the exchange of cyberinfrastructure knowledge across varying fields and facilities, establish best practices, provide expertise, and address technical workforce development and sustainability.

During the pilot, the NSF discovered that each of the facilities differ in types of data captured, scientific instruments used, data processing and analyses conducted, and policies and methods for data sharing and use. However, the study also found that there are commonalities between them in terms of the data lifecycle. The results of the three-year evaluation led to CI Compass, its mission to produce an improved cyberinfrastructure for each facility.

CI Compass is funded by an $8 million, five-year NSF grant and will work in conjunction with another NSF center, the Center for Trustworthy Cyberinfrastructure, that will advise these facilities on all issues of cybersecurity.

Utah Center for Inclusive Computing (UCIC)

Recognizing the importance of inclusion in engineering and in computing, the University of Utah’s College of Engineering will be launching the Utah Center for Inclusive Computing (UCIC) in an effort to boost the percentage of students from groups currently underrepresented in computing.

The focus of the center will be to develop and implement programs that create a welcoming atmosphere for computing as a discipline and encourage more students from underrepresented groups to pursue computing-related undergraduate degrees.

School of Computing Director Mary Hall says, “Giving how important computing is to job growth in Utah, it is critical that the computing workforce be representative of the people of the state.”

While the percentage of female undergraduates in computing has tripled in the U’s College of Engineering over the last decade, the ratio of female to male students continues to be a concern. And Utah ranks among one of the lowest states in the U.S. in female participation in the STEM workforce. Also, students identifying as Latinx make up 13% of the students at the U but only 8% of the undergraduate majors in the U’s School of Computing.

To increase the percentage of students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in computing, the center will focus on three pressing needs: boosting recruiting efforts in first-year computing classes; retaining these students in their computing curriculum all through graduation; and better preparing high school students in math and computer science before they enter college. UCIC will partner with community leaders who will help guide the activities of the center and develop new programs to meet the needs of all involved.

The center will initially be funded through a two-year $700,000 grant from the Northeastern University Center for Inclusive Computing, renewable for a third year for a total of $1 million.

Former U Researcher Wins Academy Award

If it weren’t for an important computer graphics technique seen in special effects for movies known as “ray tracing,” Spider-Man would appear as a flat, lifeless superhero, or Thanos from “The Avengers” would just be a one-dimensional super villain.

Thanks to ray tracing – a computer graphics rendering technique that allows light to interact with objects in a realistic manner – special effects in blockbuster films have an ultra-realistic look that can fool audiences into thinking they are viewing genuine objects. Ingo Wald, a pioneer in ray tracing who conducted much of his work at the University of Utah’s Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute (SCI), will receive a Scientific and Technical Academy Award Feb. 13 along with four other researchers, all of whom developed ray tracing for Intel. They include Sven Woop, Carsten Benthin, Attila T. Áfra and Manfred Ernst.

The group created a software packaged called the Intel Embree Ray Tracing Library, which is designed to make it easier and faster for special effects artists to render CGI images with ray tracing. It is a collection of ray tracing kernels optimized for Intel processors that allows rendering software to create scenes with photorealistic light reflections and other behaviors. There are two main questions in creating light in a computer-generated scene: Which light rays do you want to simulate, and how do they interact with the objects they hit. Both require heavy computation. But Embree can help render ray-traced effects upwards of 10 times faster, said Jim Jeffers, senior director of Advanced Rendering and Visualization at Intel.

“In the past, special effects studios had to write their own kernels for everything including the renderer. And it was a nightmare,” Wald said. “We isolated the inner kernel and made a high-performance library for that. The studios can build the renderers around that kernel library and get the performance for free because it’s open source.”

Most of Hollywood’s special effects studios use Embree to help generate photorealistic scenes for movies. Films such as “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “The Avengers: Infinity War (pictured, above),” “Lego Batman” and “The Grinch” have used the software. “Now there is hardly any software renderer that does not use Embree,” Wald said.

Wald received a doctorate in computer science from Saarland University in Germany where he began his research on ray tracing. He then came to the University of Utah in 2005 as a research assistant professor in the School of Computing and as a researcher for SCI where he continued his work.

“That time there was so important,” he said of his two-year stint at the U. “I still collaborate with the U and with SCI. A lot of great ray tracing research has happened there.”

After two years at SCI, Wald was hired on by Intel to continue his work on the software technique and develop Embree. Today, he still lives in Salt Lake City and works at video card manufacturer, NVIDIA, where he is Director of Ray Tracing. Ray tracing is now a much-touted feature in NVIDIA’s PC graphics cards and can enhance the effects in video games like “Cyberpunk 2077” (pictured) and the newest “Call of Duty.”

“It’s incredible, and it feels like an amazing affirmation and acknowledgement, because when we started work in accelerating ray tracing a lot of people thought we were crazy. Nobody took it seriously at the time,” Wald said about winning the Academy Award. “We were the ones who pushed for that for 20 years. Now in the last few years, ray tracing is everywhere from movies to games.”

Wald is the fourth graduate or researcher from the U’s College of Engineering to receive the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Achievement Award since 2015. School of Computing (S0C) graduate Colette Mullenhoff won the award in 2015 for co-developing the Shape Sculpting System for special effects firm Industrial Light & Magic, a digital animation software that allows artists to change the shape or face of a CGI character on the fly. In 2017, Thiago Ize, an SoC graduate who also worked at SCI, won the Academy Award for his work on the “Arnold Renderer,” a special effects software renderer that can do the job more efficiently and with less computer memory and less time. And former Pixar Animation co-founder and president, Ed Catmull, who graduated from the U’s computer science department in the 1970s, was awarded his sixth Scientific and Technical Academy Award in 2018 for the original concept behind subdivision surfaces as a modeling technique in motion picture production. Subdivision surfaces have become a preferred modeling primitive for many types of motion picture computer graphics.

New SCI Institute Director

National Science Foundation and Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) veteran, professor Manish Parashar, a distinguished professor of computer science at Rutgers University, will become the new director of the U’s Scientific Computing and Imaging (SCI) Institute on Jan. 1, 2021.

“We are thrilled to have a leader like professor Parashar take the helm at the Institute,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “He brings an unparalleled depth and breadth of experience in cyberinfrastructure and computer and computational science that will advance SCI as it continues to innovate, grow and build research collaborations across the entire University of Utah campus.”

The SCI Institute is a campus research center where over 185 faculty, staff, and students – most from the U’s College of Engineering – work together to shape the future of advanced computing. Since its founding, more than 100 undergraduates and 400 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have worked on SCI research projects.

“I also want to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of Professor Chris Johnson, SCI’s founding director,” Reed said. “Chris built SCI into an internationally recognized center of excellence in scientific computing, imaging, and visualization.”

Over more than two decades, the SCI Institute has established itself as a recognized leader in visualization, scientific and biomedical computing and image analysis. Computer Science Rankings places the university at No. 2 in visualization work internationally.

“SCI has established itself as a pioneer and an international leader in computational and data-enabled science and engineering research and education—from developing new methods and technologies for data-driven scientific exploration to pioneering new structures for multidisciplinary research,” Parashar said. “ SCI is well poised to take on a leadership role in this scientific revolution.

“I look forward to working with the outstanding faculty, staff and students at SCI to a future of even greater achievements and transformative impact on science and society.”

Parashar is currently on loan to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and office director of its Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure, and he leads the NSF’s strategic vision for a National Cyberinfrastructure Ecosystem for 21st Century Science and Engineering. He also is on detail to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)  and currently serves as assistant director for Strategic Computing. Parashar co-led the committee that developed the National Strategic Computing Update on the future of computing. At OSTP, Parashar is leading the development of the national strategic plan for the Future Advanced Computing Ecosystem. He will continue his role at NSF, spending time each week at the university, until the end of his temporary NSF appointment.

He replaces interim SCI Institute Director Mike Kirby, who will continue to lead the university’s Informatics Initiative (UI2).

Dan Reed Talks About the Internet

Remember when a friend was someone you regularly met in person? When SPAM was just a food product? When fishing was done with the pole? When a party line wasn’t something you said at a social event? The internet has brought huge changes in how our social interactions occur, information (and disinformation) is shared, and business is conducted.

Dan A. Reed, the U’s senior vice president for academic affairs, discusses how the internet was created, introduces some of the colorful characters who helped create it, and reflects on some of the social, technical, and economic challenges ahead. Click the video below to see his talk to the University of Utah’s Alumni Association about this fascinating subject.

Reed is the senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. Previously, he was vice president for research and economic development, chair in computational science and bioinformatics, and professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. He also served as Microsoft’s corporate vice president for technology policy and extreme computing, where he helped shape Microsoft’s long-term vision for technology innovations in cloud computing and the company’s policy engagement with governments and institutions worldwide.

Before joining Microsoft, he was the founding director of the renaissance computing institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he also served as chancellor’s eminent professor and vice chancellor for information technology. Prior to that, he was Gutgsell professor and head of the department of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.