As the computing and data needs of MIT’s research community continue to grow — both in their quantity and complexity — the Institute has launched a new effort to ensure that researchers have access to the advanced computing resources and data management services they need to do their best work.

At the core of this effort is the creation of the new Office of Research Computing and Data (ORCD, pronounced “orchid”), led by Professor Peter Fisher, who stepped down as head of the Department of Physics to serve as the office’s inaugural director. The office, which formally opened in September, builds on and replaces the MIT Research Computing Project, an initiative supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research, which contributed in recent years to improving the computing resources available to MIT researchers.

“Almost every scientific field makes use of research computing to carry out our mission at MIT — and computing needs vary between different research groups. In my world, high-energy physics experiments need large amounts of storage and many identical general-purpose CPUs, while astrophysical theorists simulating the formation of galaxy clusters need relatively little storage, but many CPUs with high-speed connections between them,” says Fisher, the Thomas A. Frank (1977) Professor of Physics, who took up the mantle of ORCD director on Sept. 1.

“I envision ORCD to be, at a minimum, a centralized system with a spectrum of different capabilities to allow our MIT researchers to start their projects and understand the computational resources needed to execute them,” Fisher adds.

Goods and services

The Office of Research Computing and Data will provide services spanning hardware, software, and cloud solutions, including data storage and retrieval, and offer advice, training, documentation, and data curation for MIT’s research community. It will also work to develop innovative solutions that address emerging or highly specialized needs, and it will advance strategic collaborations with industry.

The exceptional performance of MIT’s endowment last year has provided a unique opportunity for MIT to distribute endowment funds to accelerate progress on an array of Institute priorities. On the basis of community input and visiting committee feedback, MIT’s leadership identified research computing as one such priority.

In his new role, Fisher reports to Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, and coordinates closely with MIT Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), MIT Libraries, and the deans of the five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, among others. He will also work closely with Provost Cynthia Barnhart.

“I am thrilled that Peter has agreed to take on this important role,” says Zuber. “Under his leadership, I am confident that we’ll be able to build on the important progress of recent years to deliver to MIT researchers bestin-class infrastructure, services, and expertise so they can maximize the performance of their research.”

MIT’s research computing capabilities have grown significantly in recent years. Ten years ago, the Institute joined with a number of other Massachusetts universities to establish the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke to provide the high-performance, low-carbon computing power necessary to carry out cutting-edge research while reducing its environmental impact. MIT’s capacity at the MGHPCC is now almost fully utilized, however, and an expansion is underway.

Cuff comes to MIT

Over time, ORCD aims to recruit a staff of professionals, including data scientists and engineers, and system and hardware administrators, who will enhance, support, and maintain MIT’s research computing infrastructure, and ensure that all researchers on campus have access to a minimum level of advanced computing and data management.

The first major appointment is the hiring of ORCD inaugural executive director, James Cuff, who will report to Fisher and to Mark Silis, MIT’s vice president for IS&T.

“His true passion and experience reside in providing frictionless access to advanced research computing services while carefully managing budgets and teams to get the job done and delivered on time,” says Fisher of Cuff, who joins ORCD with more than two decades of experience in incrementally complex research computing environments.

Over his 11 years at Harvard University, Cuff and his team designed and built Harvard’s research computing organization from the ground up. He was one of the founding members of the MGHPCC design and build team; and more recently, Cuff served as an independent consultant working with technical startup companies covering many disparate aspects of advanced high-performance and scientific computing.

The need for more advanced computing capacity is not the only issue to be addressed. Over the last decade, there have been considerable advances in cloud computing, which is increasingly used in research computing, requiring the Institute to take a new look at how it works with cloud services providers and then allocates cloud resources to departments, labs, and centers. And MIT’s longstanding model for research computing — which has been mostly decentralized — can lead to inefficiencies and inequities among departments, even as it offers flexibility.

The new research computing and data effort is part of a broader push to modernize MIT’s information technology infrastructure and systems. “We are at an inflection point, where we have a significant opportunity to invest in core needs, replace or upgrade aging systems, and respond fully to the changing needs of our faculty, students, and staff,” says Silis. “We are thrilled to have a new partner in the Office of Research Computing and Data as we embark on this important work.”

Office of the Vice President for Research

This article first appeared in MIT News on May 5, 2022.