Computing Infrastructure working group holds forum

Group focuses on computing resources, potential partnerships, and department needs

The Computing Infrastructure working group of the College of Computing presented its progress at a forum Friday afternoon. The group said that the goals of the computing infrastructure of the College will be to improve education software in classes, promote open access, and improve data privacy. They also presented possible ways to implement the new infrastructure and fielded questions from the audience.

The group was represented by Glen Comiso, senior director for Institute Affairs; Susan Silbey, chair of the faculty; Benoit Forget, Nuclear Science and Engineering associate professor; and Christopher Hill, EAPS principal research engineer.

Forget said that the main goals of the working group were to “identify the current and future computing needs of campus for research and education, and evaluate the pros and cons of proposed approaches.”

One critical topic was whether MIT should use cloud computing resources or computing resources created within the Institute. Forget was concerned that “MIT provides very sparse direct funding to support research computing,” in some cases providing a tenth of the resources of peer institutions.

Lizhou Sha ’18, a researcher at the Kavli Institute and former chair of the Student Information Processing Board, said the Institute should have students contribute to building the infrastructure. He said that if the Institute gave students the correct amount of mentorship and resources, it would “ensure we can build something that works.”

Forget agreed, responding that the successful Athena project, the campus-wide distributed computing environment for educational use, started with a specialized and dedicated group of students; therefore, a similar model might help for the progression of College of Computing infrastructure.

Forget also said that ideas involving partnering with nearby institutions to develop infrastructure for the College had been discussed. Hill said that he “see[s] regional synergies with neighboring universities like Harvard and Boston University.”

Faculty and students attending the forum also brought up department-specific concerns. Kurt Fendt, senior lecturer in the Comparative Media Studies department, said that the department often used grants for Digital Humanities projects to “pay for outside services like Heroku,” a cloud-based deployment and hosting platform. He also mentioned that database and hosting services were “hard to hand over to an outside company because of the legal structure of MIT.”

Fendt wrote in an email to The Tech that representatives from both the Technology Licensing Office and Office of the General Counsel admitted that MIT sometimes doesn’t have good solutions for approving agreements between MIT departments and companies created from MIT research, specifically when these spinouts use other companies’ hosting services. He said that developing computing infrastructure at MIT may be able to provide at least “short to mid-term” solutions to this issue.

Ed Brignole, assistant director of Cryo-EM, the cryogenic electron microscopy facility, expressed at the forum that there was a need for centralized computing moving forward. He wrote in an email to The Tech that microscopes in his department generate 8 terabytes per day of data, and that his computing needs include infrastructure to carry out analysis on this data and provide other computing systems access to it. In his email, he also mentioned that the “strength of MIT is that [its] infrastructure is very decentralized,” allowing different labs to be more independent. However, he also stated that there might be a need for centralized computing for shared resources and that the Institute could work on this moving forward.