Holland Computing Center aids gravitational wave discovery

Holland Computing Center aids gravitational wave discovery

Supercomputers stand at the ready in Nebraska's Schorr Center, which is the home to the Holland Computer Center.
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Supercomputers stand at the ready in Nebraska's Schorr Center, which is the home to the Holland Computing Center.

The expertise and resources at Nebraska’s Holland Computing Center helped researchers around the world study the collision of two neutron stars.

Data of the astronomical milestone was collected through both gravitational waves and the visual spectrum. The event, detected by the LIGO-Virgo Scientific Collaboration and a number of telescopes, heralded the beginning of the multiple-messenger astronomy era — which is based on coordinated observation and interpretation of electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves, neutrinos and cosmic rays.

“This is like going from a silent movie to suddenly having sound and color,” said Brian Bockelman, research assistant professor in computer science and engineering. “There were a lot of astronomical questions wrapped up in this event.”

LIGO received assistance from the Open Science Grid, a global consortium of about 50 institutions that shares resources internationally and collaborates on scientific projects. One of those institutions is the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Nebraska’s Holland Computing Center, based in the south section of Memorial Stadium, served as the central research hub for the August collision and the first observation of gravitational waves about two years ago.

Bockelman heads a software and technology area of the Open Science Grid and monitored the data management and movement across the computer center’s resources. For this project, that included moving 30 gigabits of data per second — or about 10,000 times the amount required for streaming a movie on Netflix.

The reliability of the resources was essential for a project of such magnitude and something Nebraska has proved it could ensure.

“The fact that they used this by default was a real milestone, because that means that they trust it to do important work,” Bockelman said. “The whole end goal is that they don’t need to call me in the middle of the night to start doing their science.”

Following the initial discovery made in 2015 by two LIGO detectors, the project was joined by a third detector in Italy, Virgo, which allowed the source of the waves to be better triangulated. The opportunity to collaborate with partners overseas has provided the Holland Computing Center with many additional opportunities to expand its efforts.

“If you’re doing distributed computing and you’re only working with people locally, it’s hard to really see or understand some of the big challenges,” Bockelman said. “We really enjoy these international collaborations because they provide us with a different vantage point.”

Nebraska's Schorr Center

David Swanson, director of the Holland Computing Center and a research professor in computer science and engineering, agreed that added perspective will help Nebraska to expand into other research fields and projects.

“Science is a team sport,” Swanson said. “Where the exciting science is going to be primarily in the future is with these multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional teams. (The Open Science Grid) has really trained us how to do that kind of research.”

Partners on the project are also helping Nebraska develop new technologies.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Bockelman said. “When this big event happened, we were the people they turned to and depended on to get things done, and, in turn, we’re depending on them to test the new ideas we’re working on.”

One of those new ideas is SciTokens, an authorization mechanism designed to make system access easier for multiple scientists without lowering security. Many of Bockelman’s other developments involve improvements that will make the use of shared Open Science Grid tools more accessible and dependable in the future.

“Where we come in is trying to continuously make the setup better, incorporate more resources, make them run more efficiently, make them more secure — and that’s a 12-month a year type of job,” Bockelman said. “And hopefully then it’s ready for that two-or-three-week burst, and you can stand back and watch everything go smoothly.”

Bockelman and Swanson both hope the university can continue to collaborate and expand its efforts in the future.

“I think the thing that’s exciting for Nebraska and Holland is that we’re involved with some international first-ever discoveries,” Swanson said. “If we didn’t have these kinds of collaborations and weren’t willing to share our resources in this way, we would join the rest of the world in reading about it in the newspapers.”