Supercomputing has a sustainability problem. This researcher is working to fix it

Jan. 09, 2017 – BOSTON, MA. Devesh Tiwari, Assistant Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering poses for a portrait on Jan. 9, 2017. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The rate of progress in computing and technology is increasing at warp speed. A commonly-held computational truism, known as Moore’s Law, asserts that computer processor performance doubles every 18 months. But some of the basic support systems are struggling to keep up, and it’s becoming increasingly challenging to maintain the computing processor’s reliability and efficiency, which leads to high operational cost

For instance, Titan—the largest supercomputer in the U.S., and the computer behind some of the most important scientific research in the world—requires eight megawatts of energy to run at peak performance. That’s enough electricity to power a small city.

At roughly $1 million in energy costs per megawatt, running the computer takes nearly $9 million per year alone, without accounting for any of the other costs associated with running the world’s third-largest supercomputer.

Devesh Tiwari, a newly appointed assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, says this just isn’t sustainable.

Tiwari is familiar with Titan and its operational needs. Prior to joining Northeastern this semester, he worked as a staff scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and where the supercomputer is housed.

There, he was instrumental in designing and implementing innovative techniques that improved the resilience and efficiency of the high-powered computing system, which enhanced the scientific productivity of its users.

“When you have a scientist studying things like astrophysics or neurology, the computational part can get in the way of his true research if it’s not working correctly,” Tiwari said. “The technology has to be really solid and really dependable.”

DeveshEmbed_300x450Tiwari’s research focuses on just that: developing new ways to make large-scale computing systems sustainable by making them more resilient and more energy-efficient, thereby reducing operational costs and increasing the productivity of the scientists using the computers.

His work so far has not only helped stabilize the country’s largest supercomputer, but has been recognized in highly competitive international scientific journals as well.

And it’s not just far-flung supercomputers that need to be updated. In a world that increasingly relies on vast computer networks for basic functions like banking and electricity, much of these systems are alarmingly “ad-hoc and suboptimal,” Tiwari said.

“My big dream—which I believe is achievable—is creating a society where the complex infrastructures of health care, medical devices, advanced manufacturing, transportation systems, and power grids are sustainable and resilient,” he said. “It has to be healthy all the time. Only then can we truly build on it to make progress.”

Thus the fierce race to build the world’s most powerful supercomputer mirrors the drive to build a more sustainable, robust society; it all depends on ensuring the infrastructure behind it all is up to the task.

So Tiwari and his wife—both having grown up in India’s relatively warm climate—overcame their aversion to the cold so they could come to Northeastern.

Here, Tiwari found the “dynamic faculty,” “innovative spirit,” and “encouraging, exploratory environment” that matched his own passion for his field.

“We had never imagined that we would even consider moving to a city with relatively intense, cold winters,” he said. “But, Northeastern’s energetic environment and encouraging culture of innovation made us change our minds. We are delighted to be part of the Northeastern family. As my father says, ‘One of the best ways to give back to society is through continuous innovation and shaping the minds of younger generations through teaching.’ We are lucky to have found a place where we can do just that and call it home.”