Montana State University

MSU to build dedicated research data network with award from National Science Foundation

April 26, 2016 -- MSU News Service

Six students affiliated with MSU have received 2014 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. The Montana natives originally lived in Floweree, Helena and Whitefish.   High-Res available

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Montana State University researchers will soon be able to more easily share work with other scientists around the globe thanks to a $472,000 award from the National Science Foundation to build a dedicated research data network on campus.

“This is a substantial investment by the federal government to improve our infrastructure so we can better share the discoveries by Montana State researchers nationally, internationally and across campus,” said Jerry Sheehan, MSU’s vice president for information technology.

The grant program that funded the project was created three years ago after an NSF-appointed task force looked at ways to help universities leverage previously funded NSF investments in scientific research, including high-performance computing assets, such as MSU’s Hyalite research computing cluster, and major research instruments, such as mass spectrometers and high-resolution microscopes.

The NSF found that some campuses did not have the necessary networking infrastructure in place for these scientific assets to be used to the best of their capabilities.

For example, at MSU some major scientific instruments that produce, or use, huge amounts of data, such as high-resolution microscopes, are not connected to the university’s major data hub that allows big chunks of data to be moved on or off campus. The instruments end up being “islands” in the university’s data infrastructure.

“If you were a researcher and you needed to move a very large amount of data quickly off campus, you have to put it on a hard drive and actually walk it across campus to our data center. That’s not as efficient as it could be,” Sheehan said. “It slows down being able to look at things in real time because you don’t have a way to stream the data.”

MSU’s proposal to the NSF was called “Bridger” as a reference to the Bridger Mountains and the networking bridges needed to connect the university’s major scientific instruments to the data hub.

The project will focus on five NSF-funded projects that will benefit from a direct connection to the data hub. Those projects include a lab running giant climate models, to research on the complex structure of viruses, to complex transportation models.

As an additional benefit, the wiring connecting to the data hub will reach into every floor of the five buildings where the five major NSF projects are located.

“This will benefit everyone in those buildings doing data-intensive research,” Sheehan said.

Assistant Professor of Ecology Ben Poulter, who collaborated on the proposal, said approval of the NSF funding means he will be able to more easily share large climate models and other data-intensive research with colleagues around the world from his Ecosystems Dynamics Lab.

"The NSF support is critical for maintaining and improving networking capacity for both international and national collaborations, which are a key feature of the global carbon cycle and climate research taking place in my lab,” Poulter said.

MSU Library Dean Kenning Arlitsch, a co-principal investigator of the grant, highlighted the partnership between the library and ITC to support the university’s researchers.

“The result is a network infrastructure and digitial research support services that can help amplify the reach and impact of MSU research,” Arlitsch said. “We are pleased that researchers at MSU will benefit from our strengthened partnership through this award from NSF.” 

Implementation of the network is expected to begin in the spring or late summer and will take about 18 months to complete.

Last fall, MSU upgraded its bandwidth to the outside world from three gigabytes per second to 30 after recommitting to a partnership with the Pacific Northwest Gigapop, a nonprofit networking group that serves research and educational organizations. The move saved the university more than $100,000 in networking costs. The NSF-funded improvements will capitalize on that bandwidth upgrade at no cost to the university.

More important than the dollar amount of the award, Sheehan said, is the recognition from the NSF that the quality of research at MSU is worth the investment.

“It’s important to have the money, but it is more important to have the recognition that Montana State University is part of the global scientific research enterprise,” he said. “It’s an investment being made by the NSF in this campus because of the quality of research our faculty are doing and the desire, from an organization that looks at the impact this institution can have on science, to make sure the knowledge being created here is easily shareable with anyone.”

The improvements will also allow others who come to the university to know that infrastructure is not an impediment to their being able to do their best research, Sheehan said.

“It’s no longer about where you are on campus that determines how you can collaborate, but that being part of campus means you can collaborate with anyone, anywhere,” he said.

Contact: Jerry Sheehan, or (406) 994-2525


Contact: Jerry Sheehan, or (406) 994-2525

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