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With Help From XSEDE, ArcticDEM Completes Presidential Order

With Help From XSEDE, ArcticDEM Completes Presidential Order

XSEDE connects people and resources to accelerate national initiative

The final installment of Arctic maps released in September by the ArcticDEM project were made possible by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as the University of Minnesota, Ohio State University and Cornell University.

But without the help of XSEDE's Project Director John Towns a few years ago, the entire project may have been executed differently.

XSEDE is a National Science Foundation-funded project that allows academic researchers to access advanced digital services—things like supercomputers, training and help services—to advance their research in addressing the world's grand challenges.

The ArcticDEM project is part of a White House Arctic initiative to inform better decision-making in the Arctic headed up by Paul Morin, head of the University of Minnesota's Polar Geospatial Center (PGC). Morin and his ArcticDEM project collaborators from Ohio State and Cornell universities are using high-performance computing resources like NCSA's Blue Waters to create digital elevation models, or DEMs, that are swiftly changing what we know about the Arctic. A DEM is a computer-generated 3D topographic map that shows the height of everything on the earth's surface.

Current elevation models for the Arctic have a resolution of one kilometer—Morin's models offer a resolution of five meters or less, and are much more accurate at gaging height. The jump in detail will help scientists track ice loss better, and enable a host of other research.

Paul Morin, head of Minnesota's Polar Geospatial Center (PGC), estimated he met with Towns sometime in 2014 and Towns immediately introduced the XSEDE project as a potential problem-solver for the massive scale of data that would come from an array of satellites collecting topographic images.

"We did a proof-of-concept pilot that rapidly turned into actual production effort," said Towns of XSEDE's original involvement in ArcticDEM. "It became clear that the resources necessary to go for the ambitious goals that Paul had—and still has—were simply beyond the capacity and capability to support with XSEDE compute resources."

XSEDE stayed involved with ArcticDEM, supporting the project through two allocations, the latest one finishing in the summer.

From September 2014-2015, Morin used XSEDE resources, most notably Gordon at San Diego Supercomputer Center and the XSEDE help service called Extended Collaborative Support Service (ECSS).

Even though XSEDE does not do most of the compute work now—the NSF-funded Blue Waters project at NCSA is more capable for this particular project—the seeds were planted and the project was fueled by Morin's recognition of HPC as his perfect partner for ArcticDEM.

"As our project was getting off the ground, we realized that our code was probably far enough along to start putting on XSEDE resources. We got a start-up allocation and got consulting help to allow us to work on that and ran things in relatively small areas of space - like the North Slope of Alaska, those kinds of things," said Morin. "After a while, we knew we needed a bigger resource to do compute and Towns introduced us to Bill Kramer (PI of Blue Waters).

"With Towns, he's the ultimate connector. He was able to point us at the right places. When something needed to be goosed, he goosed it. The XSEDE support folks (ECSS) helped do a lot of the initial optimization and grunt work and profiling. That's what was key for us, because the last time I had touched HPC, it was a different century. I learned to work on Cray-2s."

Morin concluded: "The way that people should start doing research on HPC now is either through their own campus resources or through XSEDE."

Researchers interested in using advanced digital services through XSEDE can find out more at XSEDE.org. XSEDE allocations of compute time and help services occur four times per year; for more information about XSEDE allocations, visit here.