LSU Offers Distance Learning Course in HPC

By Nicole Hemsoth

January 26, 2007

High-performance computing is impacting science, engineering and industry in profound ways, quickly outpacing other fields to become the leading technology of the 21st century.

As businesses use supercomputing to spur economic development and find newer, creative ways to develop their products, knowledge of supercomputing is becoming a critical advantage in today's workplace.

However, many college students do not receive instruction in this crucial field. Often, this is not because they choose not to study it, but because their colleges and universities do not offer the opportunity.

Louisiana State University computer science Professor Thomas Sterling hopes to change this through a new course he is offering this semester, “High-Performance Computing: Concepts, Methods and Means,” enabled by advanced, Internet-based video technologies provided by the LSU Center for Computation and Technology (CCT).

Sterling hopes his course will help level the playing field for today's college students by giving them a sufficient collegiate background in high-performance computing, so they can eventually work in this field anywhere in the country as well as internationally. So, how is one course at one university going to reverse a national education gap? Sterling's course, the only one of its kind in the country, marks the first use of high-definition video broadcast via the Internet for distributed classroom instruction. This means that the course not only is offered at LSU, but through advances in technology, is being exported to schools internationally.

“Every student should have a chance,” Sterling said, explaining the creation of his course. “It is unfair to me that students would be deprived of the opportunity to learn simply because their universities do not offer a course in a particular subject.”

The idea for using this technology for the class grew out of a research project on the use of optical networks done in collaboration with colleagues at the Micro Electronics Center of North Carolina and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

CCT Director Ed Seidel, Ph.D., supports the course as a way to bring the technology of high-performance computing to more people who can go on to use that technology in the workplace.

“It is amazing to see a research project lead to such an important application in practice in just a year,” Seidel said. “It is a good example of the immense payoff of research and the state's investments in the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative and other information technology programs for things we do in everyday life — in this case, education.”

There are two key reasons most universities do not offer high-performance computing courses: first, the technology is just now emerging and is not available everywhere; and second, there is not always a qualified professor who could teach such a course.

The technology component is made possible at LSU through the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI), a high-speed, fiber optics network that links supercomputers at major research sites throughout Louisiana.

LONI brings the state onto the National LambdaRail, an international network that is an information superhighway, linking research facilities around the country. Through such networks, the boundaries between universities can be blurred, and students at one institution can access educational instruction from another without transferring.

“Louisiana will, in a very short time, be one of the most connected places in the country,” Sterling said. “Since the technology is in place, we can use it for classroom instruction to get more young people involved in this field.”

Sterling, an internationally recognized supercomputing expert who was with NASA prior to joining CCT, fulfills the qualifications requirement to teach high-performance computing. Since receiving his Ph.D. from MIT, he has worked on numerous international computing projects. Sterling is also the father of Beowulf class clusters, developed with colleague Donald Becker, which today are a common building block of the world's supercomputers.

Since the two components are now available at LSU, Sterling decided to create a course that could embrace the new technology available in today's college classrooms while also offering more students the chance to learn about a field that will impact all areas of business.

“With this class, Louisiana, and LSU, are starting the process of moving out of the conventional classroom and are creating different approaches to academics,” Sterling said.

For the “alpha run” of the course, which began on Jan. 16, it is being offered to students at Louisiana Tech University, the University of Arkansas, Micro Electronics Center of North Carolina, and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. Sterling explained that these sites were selected for the first run of the course because each has access to a highspeed network connection for ease in streaming the course, and also because there is a high-performance computing expert at each of those universities who can assist with the trial run as necessary.

“As a small country, we could not afford the biggest supercomputers, but the knowledge of supercomputing technology gives our graduates, often working abroad, a competitive advantage,” said Ludek Matyska from Masaryk University. “For a long time, we worked together with CCT in the area of High-Definition video transmission over the high-speed network, so we decided to use our expertise in this field to promote supercomputing at Masaryk University, too. Using the new technology, students everywhere can take advantage of resources of other schools and are no longer limited to their home university's curriculum. On the other hand, each university can deepen its particular expertise without endangering the overall quality and broad coverage of its education.”

Plans are already in the works to send the course to even more universities and research institutions in the Spring 2008 semester. Sterling has received interest from many more schools in the U.S. and worldwide to participate in the Spring 2008 semester course presentation.

The course is designed to offer an interdisciplinary look at the high-performance computing field. Sterling's goal is that the students leave his class armed with the foundation they need to pursue any type of professional goal, whether it be building supercomputers, developing new software or simply working in a business that could benefit from high-performance computing resources.

And, to ensure complete ease of transport, Sterling is creating a DVD series of his lectures that will include subtitles for the hearing-impaired and will be dubbed in other languages, first in Spanish, then later in Japanese and Thai. The course is also available in standard definition by Access Grid for those institutions not yet ready for High-Definition streaming. Sterling also is working to create a Podcast of his course. And, since there currently is no textbook for high-performance computing instruction, he is working to develop one.

“With this technology, where the campus is located does not matter,” Sterling said. “My goal is for anyone, anywhere, who wants to learn about this to at least have the opportunity to choose.”


Source: Louisiana State University

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