From smokestacks to storage research

Clustering and self-managing systems are at the heart of a new research centre at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University

Who needs steel when you’ve got storage? Not Pittsburgh resident Greg Ganger.

Ganger, a lab director at the Pennsylvania city’s Carnegie Mellon University, has grand plans for creating highly automated and cost-effective ways to manage large-scale storage infrastructures. The backdrop for his research will be Carnegie Mellon’s new Data Centre Observatory (DCO), the latest evidence that high-tech is becoming as important to Pittsburgh as steel once was.

Run by the university’s Parallel Data Laboratory (PDL), a renowned storage research centre, the DCO will serve another role, too. Various campus faculties will use DCO computing and storage resources for computationally intensive projects. After all, says Ganger, to figure out how to build large-scale, self-healing and self-tuning storage systems that work for complex, sprawling infrastructures, you need first-hand access to such an environment — complete with live production data.

Bringing in some university computing operations and creating a full-blown datacentre made sense, Ganger says.

“If the computational clusters were elsewhere, then ... a lot of the real problems weren’t going to show up,” he says.

In taking on responsibility for that user environment, Ganger dons a new hat — that of IT go-to guy. He adds it to his existing job description of researcher, communicator, industry liaison, adviser, mentor and professor (he teaches classes on distributed systems, operating systems and storage systems). His first task as IT guy has been to lobby university research groups to forgo running their own computing clusters in favour of tapping into DCO’s newfangled shared infrastructure. These are people involved with scientific visualisation, earthquake simulation, nanotechnology research and other big data-mining projects.

Ganger and the DCO team are supporting those first users on generic servers and storage systems filling 12 IT racks and sitting in their own enclosure along with the necessary power and cooling systems. Over the next three years, the team will add three enclosures to the DCO, bringing the number of IT racks to 40. Ganger expects to then be supporting more than a petabyte of storage and 4,000GHz of processing power for the university departments.

Ganger has a slew of engineering degrees, including a PhD from the University of Michigan. After finishing there, he headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent two and a half years working as a post-doctorate associate. He specialised in research on storage systems and infrastructure, occasionally working with advanced development groups at various companies. In 1997, lured by the Carnegie Mellon PDL’s reputation as a premier storage research centre, he moved to Pittsburgh.

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