Indiana University joins CReSIS team, providing tech support at the Poles


Summer 2010

When CReSIS researchers are sent to the ends of the Earth, the journeys are seldom as exotic as they sound. Depending on the nature of the mission, twelve or more hours a day may be spent in an airplane carrying CReSIS-built radars. Some students and researchers get the luxury of remaining on land, where they spend all day digging holes and securing geophones that measure an ice sheet's seismic activity.

Then there are those who work the night shift, sitting alone in a tent for 12 hours at a time, monitoring and backing up multi-terabyte data collected from the days' missions.

This is Chad Brown's role during CReSIS missions. Each evening, after the flight team returns with data collected from that day's flight path, Brown begins the slow process of backing up the data that CReSIS's radars collected, anywhere from two to four terabytes. Brown is part of PolarGrid, a joint project between Elizabeth City State University and Indiana University, and now an official partner with the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets.

Though ESCU has been a CReSIS member since the Center was founded in 2005, Indiana University just joined as an official partner this past July – the beginning of CReSIS's next five-year funding cycle. On the Bloomington campus you'll find the three mega-machines that store critical CReSIS data. PolarGrid's high performance system has the potential of transmitting 12 gigs of data per second between Bloomington and Lawrence.

Since PolarGrid's inception in 2007, IU and its team have played an increasingly crucial role in CReSIS field campaigns. In 2009, team members accompanied CReSIS and NASA researchers to both Chile and Byrd Camp, Antarctica. In May 2010, Brown joined up once again for the P-3 and DC-8 field missions in Greenland. PolarGrid collected over 50 terabytes of data during the mission's 28 flights over the ice sheet and surrounding sea ice.

However, becoming an official member means several things for the PolarGrid team. Richard Knepper, a PolarGrid staff member, explains the complexities of taking computers out of highly climate-controlled environments and into some of the coldest and most remote spots on Earth.

"It's a huge challenge to adapt to that sort of environment after working with such specific climate conditions for so long," Knepper said. This is why it's imperative that PolarGrid team members get fieldwork experience to adapt their technology most effectively.

Field hardware depends on the nature of the trip, but PolarGrid typically travels with an IBM X3750M2, as well as an enhanced storage array: to be specific, upwards of 16 drives externally connected to a server for the backup process.

IU's new Data Center, inaugurated in November 2009, is where the mega-computers are stored. The structure itself is designed to withstand an F-5 category tornado, and nearly half of it is underground. The 82,700 square-foot building boasts its own water cooling system as well as two diesel generators to power the facility. Finger-print identification is required to enter the building. Tightly encased ice water pulses throughout the facility -- under the floors (where there are also powerful fans) as well as around the individual super computers themselves. The unique cooling system would allow the machines to exist in an entirely climate-neutral environment. Within the facilities are three 11,000-square foot enclosed rooms lined with rows of supercomputers, data storage systems, and servers. Its undeniable superstars are the Big Red and the Quarry Intel, which are both a part of the CReSIS network of computing support.

The need for such a carefully controlled environment is why ECSU's portion of PolarGrid is still being housed at IU after being delivered in February of 2010. However, ESCU recently received a grant to build its very own climate-controllable storage unit for its PolarGrid system.

PolarGrid allows for a more efficient method of data collection. Before the age of mega-machines, raw data would be brought back stateside to begin processing. With PolarGrid, Brown and others sent to the field are able to process about 80 percent of it in-situ. Data is thus correlated and checked, which allows the scientists and engineers to make quick fixes on the radar for the next day's missions.

PolarGrid also make two copies of all of the data and store them in separate containers. Often, if one of the researchers is scheduled to depart mid-season, he or she will travel back home with a "hand-carry" set, essentially a hard copy of all the data collected. Processing back at home institutions, therefore, can begin immediately. Carrying strange contraptions that have stored some 40 terabytes of data may or may not cause commotion at airport security lines, but it's something Polar researchers have most certainly grown accustomed to.

Once back in Bloomington, data that have been shipped back are first copied to the Data Capacitor, then the Intel/PolarGrid Quarry, which is one of the machines that can handle itself in climate-neutral environments, for analysis. Once the analysis is complete, data are stored for safe-keeping on IU's High Performance Storage System.

It's been a long and busy field season for PolarGrid, with two Antarctic missions and a six-week-long expedition to Greenland. They're using their relative down time this summer to verify system functionality now that all the gear is safely stored – and therefore protected from the sweltering swamp-like climate in Bloomington.

"We're kind of just doing a mass sanity check, before we gear up and go back out for more expeditions," Brown said.