Center for Research Computing helps Pitt researchers corral data

Ralph Roskies, director of the Center for Research ComputingBy MARTY LEVINE

The Center for Research Computing (CRC) has already proven its worth to big-data, hard-science projects since its founding more than a year ago. Now, humanities and social science faculty are discovering its value not only as a supercomputing software site but as a teaching tool.

Linguistics faculty member Na-Rae Han, for instance, teaches computational linguistics — building mathematical models of human language for translation, spell checking, voice recognition and other increasingly automated processes. Amazon, Google and similar companies are hiring linguists to build up their natural-language processing capabilities, so Han has built experiences with CRC supercomputers into her classes.

Han didn’t bring her students to the CRC — CRC staff came to her classroom, helping students get accounts and use CRC servers online. Han had previously used the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center for her instruction, but found herself waiting in line behind its broader array of users, whereas the CRC is a Pitt-only facility.

“CRC is much easier and more straightforward to deal with,” she added. “They are ready for any Pitt person to utilize it — not to mention being very helpful.”

Economics faculty member Stefania Albanesi, grappling with huge caches of data containing hundreds of variables for a study of mortgages in the 2008 housing market collapse, also found a solution at the CRC. Faced with “days and days” of data upload, Albanesi said, and the need for multiple servers to run her calculations in parallel, she signed up for a CRC account, sent in a brief written explanation of her needs, and was connected to the proper software. As her project progressed, she was able to request increasing resources and to renew CRC use year after year.

Albanesi said she didn’t require any training (having previously worked with the applications CRC was using), but found that CRC personnel had documentation on specialty procedures that aided her project.

“They were helpful in uploading the data to the cluster (a set of servers with multiple cores to allow for high-performance computing),” she said. “If I have a question on anything, they are very responsive.”

Today, Albanesi is using the CRC for a second project involving macroeconomic model simulation.

“Any type of research that would need high computing power would benefit (from using the CRC),” she added. “Economics, of course, is the most amenable to cluster use. We are very analytical. But the large data approaches are being used more and more in the social sciences and even in the humanities.”

Project development, software training: All free

While chemistry and physics, engineering and the health sciences are more traditional users of supercomputers and software that handles large data sets, in the most recently completed academic year, the CRC has aided Pitt faculty in history and political science, among other departments.

The CRC occupies offices in Schenley Place on Bayard Street, but the guts of the CRC — all those computers — are housed in the University’s Network Operations Center in Harmarville.

“The University is funding this as a resource for everybody, and people are unaware that these kinds of resources are here,” said CRC director Ralph Roskies, vice chancellor for Research Computing. He noted that CRC services — computer use, software training, consultations and collaborations with CRC staff — are all free to Pitt researchers.

The CRC aims to provide access to computational power without requiring you to learn the arcana of the software. CRC staff — Pitt faculty with Ph.D.s — are readily available for consultation and collaboration. They can help design projects and fulfill grant application requirements. If you’re not sure how or whether your project might use the CRC, you can call with an idea and CRC will help you turn it into a project that is up and running relatively quickly.

Roskies urges departments to call to discuss CRC capabilities and services. CRC representatives also meet individually with researchers concerning their projects and can speak as guest lecturers in classes to introduce students at all levels to the CRC.

In the 2017-18 academic year, for instance, CRC undertook more than 130 one-on-one consultations, presented a dozen three-hour workshops on such software as Python and R — commonly used for humanities research — and on development tools. Its capabilities helped Pitt faculty work on 116 grant-funded projects, supporting 494 users from 59 departments, resulting in more than 104 papers.

“If you are dissatisfied with the computing resources that you have, if you’re frustrated by it in any sense — it’s too small, it’s too slow — come and talk to us,” Roskies said. “We can help you. We can give you almost the same environment that you’re used to (on a much larger scale). Or we can help you change things so that you are running much more effectively than you were.”

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.