Urgent Computing at the Texas Advanced Computing Center

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Dell Technologies

The Space Shuttle Endeavor blasted off on May 16, 2011, for its 25th and final mission. Trouble brewed from the launch, where footage showed possible damage to the heat shield — similar to what had happened to the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Fortunately, NASA had increased their vigilance since that accident. Endeavor’s crew inspected the damaged heat tiles with the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, a post-Columbia addition. Its cameras and lasers scanned the tiles and beamed information back to mission control. 

The inspection took about two hours, and NASA cleared Endeavor for its eventual safe re-entry back to Earth.

Ground Control to Advanced Computing

It showed foresight to prepare a back-up plan that used computer analysis on the ground to avert a catastrophic disaster in space. It also showed how advanced computing can quickly become urgent computing when time is of the essence.

Centers like the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin have long focused on scientific research. But since the 2003 Columbia explosion, when TACC resources were used to quickly guide investigators to shuttle debris in East Texas, the center has engaged in urgent computing.

Building the systems and cyberinfrastructure needed for rapid response before a disaster is key to a successful outcome. Whether for COVID-19 research, extreme weather and earthquake forecasting, or mitigating human-made disasters, TACC has shown that its supercomputers are ready, and its leadership is willing and able to respond to urgent crises.


The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged lives and economies worldwide. In the U.S. alone, more than 240,000 people have died from COVID-19, and millions are out of work.  

Scientists were quick to join the fight to stop the pandemic. Thousands pivoted their research to COVID-19, applying their knowledge and insights to the novel virus. Many of these projects required high performance compute capabilities, and TACC committed its Frontera and Stampede 2 supercomputers developed by Dell and fueled by Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors.  These supercomputers were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and are the #1 and #2 most powerful academic supercomputers in the U.S., delivering a combined 50 petaflops of peak performance — to help more than 50 COVID-19 research projects.

Coronavirus Public Health

One of those projects, led by the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, has produced some of the most accurate forecasts of COVID-19 transmissions, hospitalizations, and deaths. Its research has supported timely decision-making by local, state, and national leaders, and it has been featured in major national news stories such as CNN, the New York Times, and other publications. 

The UT Modeling Consortium relies on TACC systems for high performance computing (HPC) and analytics, crunching data from mobile phones and hospitalization records to run models of how the pandemic is progressing. 

The Consortium’s forecasts projected (and are still projecting) healthcare demands from COVID-19 in Austin and have helped the Texas Education Agency plan school re-openings.

"We developed this framework to ensure that COVID-19 never overwhelms local health care capacity while minimizing the economic and societal costs of strict social-distancing measures,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, who heads the Consortium.

Modeling the Spike Protein

Typically, vaccines take years to develop, but time is a luxury the world does not have. A computer model of the coronavirus developed by the Amaro Lab at the University of California, San Diego using Frontera is helping accelerate the development of new treatments. 

Early results by Rommie Amaro in June 2020 revealed a new function for molecules called glycans that coat the spike protein. These molecules not only help it elude the immune system, Amaro found they also change shape in a way that helps the virus bind with the ACE2 receptor on human cells. This binding is the first step to infection. *

NSF’s Chief Operating Officer Fleming Crim commented on TACC’s urgency in supporting COVID-19 research: “NSF’s research cyberinfrastructure, in which TACC plays a leading role, has mobilized swiftly to respond to the pandemic.... This response is just one example of the way that NSF investments in fundamental research meet national needs."

Artificial Intelligence, Real Vaccine

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are emerging as important COVID-19-fighting tools.

Computational biologist Arvind Ramanathan of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory leads research that combines AI with physics-based drug docking and molecular dynamic simulations.  The work combs through billions of potential drugs to find ones that might be effective at treating COVID-19.

Frontera ran millions of simulations to train the machine learning system to identify promising drug candidates.

"The rapid response and engagement we have received from TACC has made a critical difference in our ability to identify new therapeutic options for COVID-19," said Rick Stevens, Argonne's associate laboratory director for Computing, Environment and Life Sciences.

Hurricane Storm Surge

The 2020 hurricane season has been one of the most active in recent history. One of the most dangerous and difficult to forecast parts of a hurricane is a storm surge. Emergency managers need to know the moment-by-moment maximum water level along the coast and inland during a hurricane to plan operations and save lives. 

Whenever a storm emerges in the Gulf of Mexico or the North Atlantic, a team of leading hurricane researchers spin up large-scale storm surge simulations on Frontera, Stampede2, and Lonestar5.

On Frontera, researchers can run three scenarios in the time it previously took to run one, and are using larger, more resolved meshes, providing better guidance to emergency managers and decision-makers.

"Having Frontera available is incredible," said Jason Fleming, principal consultant for Seahorse Coastal Consulting and lead developer and operator of the ADCIRC Surge Guidance System. "Frontera not only has more processors, but also faster processors, which allow us to do so much more.”

Emergency managers throughout the Gulf and Atlantic coasts use forecasts created on TACC systems for transportation and evacuation decisions. First responders use it to determine what roads are safe to reach impacted areas and what areas need to be evacuated.

"Search teams doing search-and-rescue need to know where to stage strike teams to be close to an event, but not be inhibited by consequences of high winds and high water," said Gordon Wells, a researcher at UT Austin's Center for Space Research and the university representative to the Emergency Management Council that advises Texas on storm response. "What is the extent of the area that will experience severe weather? We need to get a solid representation of those deterministic impacts."

In the case of Hurricane Laura — which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane near Cameron, Louisiana on August 27 — there was a possibility the storm would push water up the Neches River and impact levee structures.

Forecasts on Frontera gave Wells confidence that they weren't going to have problems there because of the wind, Wells said. "There was no need to use resources, recommend unnecessary evacuations, or do house-by-house searches."

Preserving these resources allowed them to be utilized elsewhere. “If we can get people out of harm’s way in real time, we’re saving lives,” said Clint Dawson, another member of the storm surge forecasting team.

The Next Big Ones

It’s hard not to worry about earthquakes if you live in Southern California. The big concern is the San Andreas Fault, for which the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated a seven percent chance of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake by 2033. 

Less well-known dangers are ruptures that propagate from one segment of a fault to another, forming a chain reaction of multi-fault earthquakes. Some of the world's most powerful earthquakes have involved multiple faults, such as the 2012 magnitude 8.6 Indian Ocean Earthquake.

A team from the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) is working to develop an aftershock forecasting tool to provide real-time decision-making assistance in the case of a future quake. Within minutes of an event, geologists want to be able to run large-scale simulations that provide the best possible prediction of whether, and where, aftershocks may occur. 

Systems like the Dell-Intel Frontera supercomputer are the best hope of providing this type of advanced warning.

“When you have an earthquake, it changes the state of stress locally and regionally, which changes the probability of ruptures nearby,” said Christine Goulet, executive director for Applied Science at SCEC. “Having access to on-demand computing on Frontera, we could produce guidance on the potential of aftershocks, and that would help considerably in the wake of a major earthquake.”

Road Ahead

For decades, TACC has been driven by challenges that were either “too big” — requiring maximum computation for a single problem; or “too many” — solving millions of smaller problems. 

These challenges remain integral to TACC’s mission. But in the face of a potential disaster, the problem is “too soon,” and science-based computing becomes urgent computing.

“Partnering with TACC and Dell, we applied Intel’s most advanced HPC technologies, solved real problems, and saved lives“, said Trish Damkroger vice president and general manager of the High Performance Computing organization in the Data Platforms Group at Intel. “These results are the best part of our jobs.”

In November, TACC announced an expansion to Frontera — enabled in part by Dell Giving — that will allow the center to increase its support for urgent computing efforts in the years to come.

“We’re proud to contribute to TACC and the expansion of Frontera for these critical efforts that impact so many lives,” said Thierry Pellegrino, VP/GM HPC and AI solutions, VP Data Centric Workloads.

Thankfully, the technology and expertise needed to fully utilize advanced computing in a time of crisis has grown tremendously. Urgent computing might be an idea whose time has come - when the time for finding answers is short.

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