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Great Plains Regional CyberTeam Expanding Capacity for Computing from Great Plains Campuses

Hannah Cheren
October 24, 2023

As a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration, the Great Plains Augmented Regional Gateway to the OSG (GP-ARGO) has made significant strides in democratizing computing. Continued support by the CC* award (NSF 23-526) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is a testament to its dedication to advancing the field.

The task of effectively supporting computational and data-intensive research at an under-resourced and understaffed university in a rural area without the benefit of in-person support is a formidable challenge. Yet, the Great Plains Augmented Regional Gateway to the OSG (GP-ARGO) undertook this daunting responsibility across eighteen universities with exceptional success. Not only did it accomplish this feat, but it also established a new standard of excellence in the field, supplying cyberinfrastructure and support.

GP-ARGO is a product of a regionally distributed OSG Gateway led by the Great Plains Network (GPN), but it started as a gigabit Point of Presence (gigaPOP) of institutions across the great plains region. “It was just a whole bunch of institutions saying, let’s buy a bunch of networks together because it’s easier on us,” Co-principal investigator (PI) and Cyber Infrastructure Program Committee lead Dan Andresen explained, “which is still what GPN is today, but we’ve moved into more facilitating research and connectivity at a social and scientific level as well.”

The social networking part of this project came later, starting with GPN, but then developing into the CyberTeam. “As part of CyberTeam, we noticed that smaller institutions lacked intrinsic capabilities compared to larger ones,” Andresen noted. This gap in research computing sparked the idea of GP-ARGO.

The “O” in GP-ARGO stands for “OSG,” indicating the team’s intention to leverage OSG resources. “We knew we wanted to connect these 18 institutions, and OSG was the way to do it,” Andresen explained. Derek Weitzel, a Research Professor in distributed computing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, played a vital role in connecting OSG with GP-ARGO. Weitzel had worked with OSG before the project began, playing an integral part in interfacing between the OSG and GP-ARGO. After establishing OSG’s role in this new project, “it became just a simple matter of obtaining the 18 machines and then figuring out which institutions wanted to be a part of this first beta testing phase,” Andresen reminisced.

Handling 18 machines across six states came with challenges, particularly in communicating and managing 18 administrative domains, security protocols, and rule differences. “None of these sites were the same,” Weitzel explained. “Some sites were very restrictive, others were very relaxed, and we had to make all of them work.” Kyle Hutson, one of the former mentors for the Cyber Infrastructure side of the CyberTeam, played a crucial role in resolving these technical nuances.

With GP-ARGO consistently ranking among the top five OSG entry points for a good part of the last year, the team has successfully linked the machines together and ensured smooth operation, even without dedicated system administrators on-site. Through a large dashboard that compiles information from each institution on which projects are actually running on the nodes, IT leaders and CIOs can monitor and visualize each of the nodes. The dashboard also comes with a data visualization of usage by university, including the PIs on each project, adding a personal component to the monitoring.

Acknowledging the great success of this regional network organization, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supports it. First, CyberTeam received a CC* award, and later, the entire GP-ARGO network received one — something that no one has done before. “Applying as a network rather than a single institution made sense,” Andresen explained, “this emphasizes this is a regional effort rather than an individual, institutional effort.”

GP-ARGO has truly set the curve in taking on a project of this scale and magnitude and doing it successfully. Reflecting on what went well, Andresen gleamed, “I mean, we did it! We’ve got it working; we’re among the top five OSG entry points, we’ve contributed 13 million CPU hours of science, and we have people who are excited and involved, which has been incredibly fun and exciting.”

Furthermore, the team has ensured the sustainability of this operation. “Most of the institutions we’re working with don’t have the expertise or the full-time employees to spare,” Andresen explained. Central administration by OSG has been instrumental in this regard, especially recently, regarding restructuring administration roles with the leaving of Kyle Hutson. “If something happens to whoever is the administrator, like leaving for another institution,” Hutson jokingly remarked, “we have four people across four different institutions that all have administrative rights. I was a primary person doing that, but I was not the only person who could do this, so somebody else can take over.”

Part of GP-ARGO’s appeal lies in their determination and dedication to helping other consortiums and networks aiming to achieve similar goals. They provide a Git repository with all their code and emphasize the importance of both social and technical networks. “Building trust and familiarity is crucial,” Andresen advised. “Get involved with the OSG and get to know people; having Derek [Weitzel] available as the interface has been invaluable. Knowing the context and the people is much easier than starting from scratch.”

Despite the immense undertaking, Andresen commented on how fun and exciting the project has been, with the OSG playing a pivotal role. “This program only builds stronger connections within the region between all these different professionals,” Weitzel reflected. “It’s allowed us to reach out to different types of people, creating new opportunities that build on each other.”

Echoing this sentiment, Hutson highlighted the project’s impact in involving previously less-engaged institutions within GPN with the network’s recent expansion from 18 to 19 campuses. “Cameron University heard about some of the things we’re doing through their state network, had a spare box, and asked if they could get involved!” Hutson explained.

Building these regional connections was one of the most important steps in creating this network. The Midwest doesn’t have any major supercomputing centers or institutions with enough people to drive a network of this magnitude forward. However, Andresen noted that the key to their triumph in this large-scale and long-term endeavor lay in the region’s heritage: “We knew we couldn’t do this alone, but here in the Midwest, our spiritual successor has always been that we look out for and help each other out. That’s who we are, and it’s what has helped us reach remarkable feats.”