Rice Center Proliferating Marketplace
By ALICE ADAMS
Tremors in technological paradigms that don't register on the Richter Scale are nonetheless being felt around the world as The Center for Research on Parallel Computation moves, on course, toward the 21st century. With its headquarters in Rice University's Duncan Hall, the CRPC is one of the 25 science and technology centers supported by the National Science Foundation. The Center, including seven core sites and nine affiliated sites, was established in 1989 to exploit massively parallel computing systems, making its research and findings available to the nation. Because Rice is the lead institution of the Center's consortium, faculty as well as graduate students and research scientists from several departments are involved in the Center's work.
Few Houstonians know about the Center or its contributions. Fewer still understand the meaning of "parallel computation." To explore the value of the CRPC to Houston, the state of the Texas and the nation, an analogy between parallel computation and doing the laundry best explains parallel computation and the work of the center. For example, an average family creates six washer-loads of laundry each week. The designated laundry-person now has a choice cither do six loads. one at a time at home or go to a laundromat and load the week's worth of wash into six separate washers. If the person has selected the laundromat-route, they will complete the wash quickly.
At the CRPC, parallel computing means taking hundreds of thousands of microprocessors and having them work in parallel on a single computing task. Parallel computation makes it possible to resolve problems faster and with greater power. "One of the Center's primary goals is to make massively parallel computing systems as usable in the future as conventional sequential computing systems are today," said associate director of external relations Kathy El-Messidi.
The CRPC also brings into focus for Houston resources from across the country that Rice can explore. "And it also means we leverage our influence from Houston into the nation and the world," the associate director said.
The CRPC's consortium includes Argonne National Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Los Alamos National laboratory, Rice University, Syracuse University, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville and The University of Texas at Austin. Affiliated sites include Boston University, Drexel University, Indiana University, The Institute for Computer Applications in Science and Math (ICASE), the University of Illinois Pablo Research Group, the University of Maryland, the University of Houston, University of California-San Diego and the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute. Under the direction of Ken Kennedy, the CRPC not only engages in developing detailed computer models but also is involved in rethinking and redeveloping the software and operating systems needed for multiple microprocessors to work together.
In the larger sense, work being done at the Center today will be made available in the marketplace tomorrow, creating opportunities for expanding Houston's high-tech industry. It also has opened the doors for the multiple start-up facilities that follow on the heels of new trends. "We are working with area universities to create an intellectually vibrant marketplace," Kennedy said, "a marketplace poised to expand computing and high-tech activities here." The Center, itself, is recognized as a world leader in high-end scientific computing and also has strong ties to the next generation of Internet. "What's missing to make the Houston technology picture complete is a high-end research lab, similar to those found in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin," Kennedy said. Among other benefits of the Center is the creation of an environment that would keep promising innovators in Houston. "We're working closely with UH and Rice to develop new research initiatives," Kennedy said.
Linda Torczon, executive director of the CRPC, is responsible for the Center to run smoothly. "I'm involved in research but also oversee technology and running efforts. I'm certainly involved in those issues," she said. She, along with Kennedy, coordinates research efforts with the cadre of scientists around the consortium and also, as one of the NSF goals, works with the community in various research projects. "Our previous collaborations with various companies in the community, have made results from the CRPC available to partners in area medical and energy fields," Torczon said. "Our greatest challenge with a center this size is to make sure we are a distributed center," Torczon said. "That means making sure we work together as a group despite geographical distances. "We have to be extremely careful with all the new technological advances, and work to achieve new goals but, at the same time, it is important to make certain our overarching goals are reflecting the changes around us," Torczon said. "To remain relevant in the problems we are addressing, we have to anticipate, through our interactions, new directions or be able to influence the direction of these new trends," said Torczon. Collaborations with other companies, some in Houston, have meant seeing some of the Center's research results translated into the market place in various disciplines. The Center's powerful parallel computing also has been used to attack various projects and simulations.
As a part of its mission, the CRPC has developed programs of outreach education for grades K-12. "We want to be a part of the whole educational process," Torczon said. "This is another very exciting aspect of the program and we provide training for teachers in the math and science areas." Special seminars have been held, teaching teachers how to avoid pitfalls in gender and racial issues in math and science. The program also works with other universities to develop academic programs in computational science and engineering. "There is also a trend in national curricula to integrate disciplines, and we are working to do that at Rice," Torczon said.
Ken Kennedy is director of the Center for Research on Parallel Computation at Rice University. He said the CRPC is working with area universities to create an intellectually vibrant marketplace poised to expand computing and high-tech activities here.
Kennedy, who co-chairs the President's Committee for Information Technology, said one of the Center's areas of interest is the issue of a declining number of computer science graduates. "It's a pipeline issue that begins to be complex when you understand that many students are electing to go into industry. either at the time of or shortly following, graduation," Kennedy said. "That means fewer students who will become faculty members," he said, "plus we just don't seem to be able to produce enough."
On a brighter note, the number of computer science majors this year at Rice numbers more than 100, making computer science the third-largest major on campus. "There are certain quirks in this pipeline and one of those is how few women are selecting computer science as a major," Kennedy said. "We have 20 percent women on our faculty but it is really surprising how women are avoiding computer science. Another quirk is reflected in the number of computer science Ph.D.s, a number that has been declining for seven years."
The director sees the Center at the hub of change in many of Houston's long-standing traditions as the new century comes into view.
"Throughout the years of the development of this community, there has been an independent, entrepreneurial "wildcatted attitude, which doesn't emphasize the intellectual corridors of the community," Kennedy said. "Anytime you're dealing with a pipeline, you must understand that it takes time for it to evolve. We see the need for a broader attack, increasing visibility in K-12 and retaining students who decide on a computer science major. Kennedy refers to a "disturbing trend" where companies recruit new high school graduates or college graduates before graduation. "For the student who does not have a complete training experience, it shortens their life span in the workplace if they don't get a degree," he said. "A college degree gives you a way of thinking in the world, and what you eventually design becomes more applicable."
With many in the community now seeing the university as an important part of the future, Kennedy and the team at the CRPC believe that institutions of higher learning are once more being seen as assets to the business community as well as to those choosing to pursue careers in academia."In the medieval model, princes and kings supported artists and intellectuals, not only to make business better but life better, as well, " he said. "Faculty don't come to work at universities because it is an easy life . . . but because they enjoy trying to make contributions to the environment."