Computational Consulting


Ross Dickson

Computational Research Consultant, ACEnet

What is a computational research consultant? Think of it as high-powered tech support. But instead of helping people re-boot their computers, I help researchers do their work faster, more effectively and more efficiently using really big computers.

How varied are the scientific disciplines that you support? They are extraordinarily varied. The chemists and the atomic-physicists use a large proportion of our resources, as do oceanographers, which is an important research field in Atlantic Canada. We’re seeing growing demand from biologists for genomics computing, as well as mechanical, chemical, industrial and electrical engineers. Computer scientists naturally use a lot of computing, as do mathematicians and statisticians, and their work is applicable to many different disciplines.

Do you see many of the same technical requests or do specific disciplines have specific needs? The bulk of my job is spent working on some issues that are common to everybody. How do I get onto your system? How do I interact with the job management software that makes sure that every user gets their fair share of time?

Is it difficult for new users to get set up? The first thing I do is meet with people to learn about the fascinating research they’re doing, and then advise on how our computers can help and where to find the documentation they will need. Most of the people I deal with are grad students and post-docs and these are highly educated, self-motivated individuals. After that initial meeting, most are able to use our resources independently. The only barrier to entry is getting an account and that’s free. Once that’s done you can log on and start working.

So there’s little need for follow up? Problems occasionally arise, but usually they can be dealt with by email or telephone. If they have a more subtle problem that requires knowledge of their field, like molecular dynamics, I’ll transfer them to the person here who’s an expert in that area. If there’s no one at ACEnet, I’ll refer them to another regional consortium or to someone at Compute Canada.

What if I need more computing power than ACEnet can provide? That’s another benefit to being part of a national organization. I can refer them to a cluster in Toronto that has more capacity or anywhere else in the country. Where the computer resources are physically located doesn’t matter anymore. Compute Canada is there to get the right people the right resources.

How important is it for users to understand the technical intricacies of advanced research computing? That shouldn’t be their concern. Researchers need to keep focusing on what they do best — the research. Let us worry about the computer stuff. Our job is to make their job easier.