University of Queensland partners with IBM to progress data research

What does a university do when it's over 11,000kms away from the tech giants' R&D labs? It stands up its own sandpit and encourages major vendors to take part.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

IBM Australia and the University of Queensland (UQ) have launched the "IBM@UQ" Centre of Excellence with the aim of supporting researchers working across health, manufacturing, and environmental sciences to address the challenges associated with extreme data growth, data organisation, and data storage.

Located at UQ's Brisbane campus, the new centre brings to the university some of the research and development (R&D) that Australia misses out on.

Speaking with ZDNet, Professor David Abramson, director of the UQ Research Computing Centre (RCC), said IBM@UQ was an opportunity for researchers to push the extremes of their work and the IBM kit.

"We think we've got a pretty rich sandpit to play in," he said. 

"Our researchers are always trying to do the next thing … they will really do anything to get the edge on the next thing, so how do I deliver that to them? The centre is a little bit around that because by working closely with a vendor, we can get access to stuff that's dropping off the production line and before it is available, and we will stress test it, and we will do really nasty things to it."

In Australia, there's a tyranny of distance, leaving researchers and businesses far from the development labs of the large tech companies.

"No one has their R&D labs in Australia … so we get closer to that by the nature [of these partnerships]," Abramson said. "Brought the dev lab to us in a way we wouldn't have otherwise been able to otherwise do."

Big Blue has donated a number of novel data storage and computer hardware platforms for experimentation and evaluation within the RCC. Abramson clarified the new centre wasn't an R&D lab, however, as the researchers aren't building anything for IBM; rather it's centred on "expertise and innovation".

"We'll try things, we'll do things that are a little bit innovative, or a lot innovative, in the hope that it works, and that gives [the researchers] the ability to play with the products in a space which is safe but stressing, using products in ways that people didn't previously consider," he said.

"We will do things that a bank won't do, for example. If you take a conservative company buying IBM kit, they're going to say, 'We want this to work … if you get this wrong, my business is in trouble'. Of course, that's true in the university system, too, but I'm prepared to take more of a risk because my researchers, they got to do something they couldn't have done otherwise."

Taking more of a risk, Abramson said, will also allow IBM to benefit from what the UQ researchers do with the kit.

The professor described the RCC's purpose as sitting between advanced infrastructure and research. He said the infrastructure is often quite difficult to use, and "if you've got a PhD in biology, that doesn't necessarily make you a computing person".

The centre has been in place for around 10 years and is touted by Abramson as being vendor neutral. Infrastructure has been supplied by HPE and IBM and compute is a combination of Dell, Nvidia, Hewlett-Packard, and some IBM.

Researchers using the centre bring a range of projects with them, including what Abramson called a very large biosciences component, which can be anything from genomics through to drugs and vaccines.

Researchers are also performing large-scale population-wide genome studies, for example, on genes that cause Schizophrenia, and there are groups working on Alzheimer's disease and various other brain functions. Chemistry work on drugs through batteries; the hypersonics group who are trying to build a scramjet; as well as humanities, also use the infrastructure.

"The big drivers are the sciences and one of the reasons for that is almost all of the sciences now are using high-end instruments to do their work," he said.

"This is a great opportunity to use our expertise as well as our leadership in scale-out storage solutions to assist organisations like UQ in tackling the challenges of extreme data growth and data insight," IBM director and general manager of systems Jason Price said.

"We look for opportunities to become more than just a supplier, but a trusted advisor and partner in delivering outcomes." 


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