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ALS Data Visualization Lab Serves Up Computing Power Print


Even though the ALS has been in shutdown mode for almost two months, there’s one area of the facility where users have been busy. The new ALS Visualization and Analysis Lab, which opened to users in November 2013, hosts an impressive amount of computing power that’s helping scientists work through data-heavy beamline results much more quickly and efficiently.

Located on the second floor of the ALS (building 6, room 2244), the data visualization lab (or “viz lab,” as ALS folks refer to it) includes two Windows workstations with 64 GB of RAM,high-end graphics cards, and large displays; three top-of-the-line iMacs; a teleconferencing television; and a 55” 3D television. The room that houses all of this was previously a library, available to users and mostly used as a place to work on laptops or make phone calls. The computing capabilities were not previously available to users; they had limited access to computers at the beamline, but once their beamtime was over they had to find other means of accessing and analyzing data.

The viz lab was a dream come to fruition for ALS Beamline Scientists Dula Parkinson and Alex Hexemer. Their effort to create the lab was directed by ALS Deputy for Experimental Systems Howard Padmore and ALS Deputy Division Director for Operations Michael Banda.

“Users at my beamline collect a lot of data, and to be able to do anything with that data they need a lot of computational horsepower,” says Parkinson. “Every data set is about 50 GB, which isn’t going to load too well on a user’s laptop.”

Parkinson says many users don’t even have the software needed to view data on their own computers. Users sometimes weren’t able to finish what they needed to do, because of limited access to computers at the beamline. Parkinson estimates that more than 50 percent of his users are from the Bay Area, so a lot of them can actually drive over and use the viz lab even after they’ve finished with their beamtime. In addition to computing power and software, the viz lab gives users a place to collaborate and trouble-shoot; ALS staff are frequently available to assist users in the viz lab and other users working there often share tips.

“It brings collaboration,” says ALS user Katherine Harry, a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UC Berkeley who has been doing beamline research on lithium batteries at the ALS for almost three years. “It’s also nice because you’ll often run into other researchers in the lab and they can help you decipher things.”

Before she had access to the viz lab, Harry says she would remotely access beamline computers at off-hours and hope a computer was available. “The data sets we’re collecting are enormous,” she says. “I personally don’t have the computing power to even open a single dataset on my laptop.”

The viz lab is available to anyone at the ALS, and the space has been getting busier and busier since it opened. Parkinson says he’s had a lot of requests from staff and post-docs from other beamlines.

“The great thing about the ALS is that it produces a lot of x-rays,” says Parkinson. “That allows you to collect high-resolution images very quickly, and all those pixels turn into a lot of data.”