ASU researcher shifts big data computing into high gear

September 17, 2018

Every second, approximately 6,000 tweets are posted on Twitter. Every minute, 360,000 tweets. Every hour, almost 22 million tweets. Every day, more than 500 million tweets. That’s a significant amount of data — and it represents only one social media platform out of hundreds.

Social media offers an enormous volume of unstructured data that can generate knowledge and help make better decisions on a larger scale. While humans are clearly efficient data generators, computers are having a difficult time processing and analyzing the sheer volume of data. man in computing lab Arizona State University Associate Professor Ming Zhao leads the development of GEARS, a big data computing infrastructure designed for today's demanding big data challenges. Photo by Erika Gronek Download Full Image

Arizona State University Associate Professor Ming Zhao has taken the driver’s seat in developing the Energy Efficient Big Data Research System, called GEARS, a new computing infrastructure created by a consortium of interdisciplinary researchers who are turning the noise of social media data into useful data sources that can improve machine learning and detect security threats or important, but hidden, incidents like disease outbreaks or crimes in real time.

But GEARS’ functionality isn’t limited to social media. The team is ready to clutch the increasingly challenging and diverse big data applications present in today’s world full of sensors and the internet of things, which are generating data ranging from brain signals to activity in deep space.

“Scientific discoveries are driven by data, not just experimentation anymore,” said Zhao, a faculty member in the ASU Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “But how do we make use of that data?”

In order to support new discoveries through data, we need new, higher-performance systems. However, power consumption has become a limiting factor for big data systems, so improvements in energy efficiency are also important.

Zhao’s efforts to solve both performance and energy-efficiency challenges of big data technologies — in a project titled “GEARS — An Infrastructure for Energy-Efficient Big Data Research on Heterogeneous and Dynamic Data” — is funded by the National Science Foundation through a three-year, $750,000 grant.

More diverse hardware for more diverse big data tasks

The way Zhao aims to meet performance and efficiency goals is through heterogeneous computing, or a combination of multiple processor and storage types. Though it isn’t yet a common term, heterogeneous computing is fairly common among our everyday devices.

One example of heterogeneous computing is the iPhone X’s processor, which has four cores optimized for performance and two cores optimized for power efficiency. While these general-purpose cores can run a variety of apps and operating system duties, the processor also features a dual-core neural engine that is specialized for machine learning tasks and operates Face ID, a face-recognition application requiring significant computing horsepower to run quickly.

The neural engine’s circuitry is specially designed to handle the complex computing involved in recognizing a user’s face compared to a general-purpose processor core with a one-size-fits-most structure that’s good enough for simple applications.

Heterogeneous computing on the storage side can also be seen in many computers, which are likely to include both hard-disk drives (HDDs) for inexpensive, high-capacity storage and solid-state drives (SSDs) for storage that’s speedy to access.

GEARS is taking a similar approach but at a much larger scale. The system is expanding beyond having only general-purpose computer processors (central processing units) to incorporating accelerators (graphics processing units and field-programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs), and integrating a deep hierarchy of storage tiers (dynamic random-access memory, non-volatile memory, or NVM, HDDs and various SSD technologies) that each have their own advantages and disadvantages depending on a given application’s characteristics.

The inclusion of heterogeneous hardware such as FPGAs and NVMs allows GEARS to tackle tough big data problems, for example, problems that cannot be easily parallelized and that are sensitive to delays. In many cases, these less traditional hardware designs also consume less power, contributing to the energy-efficiency goals of GEARS.

Easy-to-use software for heavy-duty hardware

GEARS incorporates software components that help optimize the use of the various processor and accelerator types and storage resources.

“It’s easy to buy the heterogeneous hardware (components) and put them together, but it’s up to the software system to make good use of the devices,” said Zhao, who is director of the Research Laboratory for Virtualized Infrastructures, Systems and Applications that started the development of GEARS’s underlying technology.

While some researchers on the GEARS team are focusing on developing the hardware and software infrastructure, others are developing new algorithms to make efficient use of the infrastructure and to make it user-friendly for other data scientists.

“Usability is important, so we want to make it really easy for users to develop applications for the heterogeneous hardware of GEARS,” Zhao said.

One way GEARS researchers are achieving this is by developing extensions to popular data analytics platforms such as Apache Spark. Data scientists can develop an application with Spark as they normally would, then apply the application to the high-performance, energy-efficient, optimized GEARS infrastructure.

Another example is extending widely used machine learning platforms such as TensorFlow, which will allow researchers to conveniently deploy their algorithms on GEARS and benefit from its heterogeneous computing power.

GEARS wants your big data challenges

Now that they have the system in place, the GEARS team is eager to take on diverse big data challenges beyond the realm of computer science.

“Essentially, anything that requires big data could potentially benefit from GEARS,” Zhao said.

So far, GEARS has helped with several interdisciplinary projects in collaboration with researchers at ASU, other universities and companies across the country, and even around the globe. These include projects related to neuroscience, sustainability, medicine, aerospace, botany and geography.

Assistant Professor Fengbo Ren, a co-principal investigator of the GEARS project, is helping researchers from ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, for example, to develop a deep learning system with GEARS using an unstructured big data source of remote sensor data and photographs to automatically classify terrain features. Outside of the university, researchers from the Phoenix Children’s Hospital are working with another GEARS co-PI, Professor K. Selçuk Candan, to develop deep phenotyping for physiologic biomarkers of post-traumatic epilepsy in children.

Zhao says the team is happy to support anyone at ASU by hosting their big data applications on the GEARS hardware in the ASU Research Computing high-performance computing data center. For collaborators outside ASU, the team is happy to share the GEARS technology and open source software.

Zhao’s team will transfer this new technology beyond ASU, benefit a wider community of data scientists and engage with industry partners through ASU's Center for Assured and Scalable Data Engineering, an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center.

“People can learn from our technologies and our lessons and experiences we got from building GEARS to make their own version of GEARS,” Zhao said.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Constitution Day: A celebration of ideals

September 17, 2018

Editor's note: Monday, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day. School of Economic Thought and Leadership Associate Director Adam Seagrave penned this op-ed about how Sen. John McCain and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson might encourage us to celebrate the day.

In his recent farewell letter to the country he served so faithfully, Sen. John McCain described the U.S. as “a nation of ideals, not blood or soil.” This statement — particularly considering its author — is striking. McCain himself could be Exhibit A of the “blood and soil” model, as a male of white European ancestry who literally shed his own blood to defend American soil from foreign enemies. Adam Seagrave is associate director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership as well as associate director of the Center for Political Thought and Leadership. He teaches courses on American political thought and race and the American story. Download Full Image

McCain’s parting statement echoes one made by another “blood and soil” Exhibit A from two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson. In his “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson argued that “America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals. … Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” This sounds like “America — and ancestral Americans — First.”

In a letter to Samuel Kercheval 40 years later, though, Jefferson firmly denied the relevance of ancestry to American national determination and identity, writing that “the dead have no rights. They are nothing.” Moreover, Jefferson’s larger point speaks directly to McCain’s parting advice and also to our celebration of Constitution Day each September — by insisting that our ancestors and old documents don’t provide our civic identity. “Some men,” he said, “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence … they ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.” For Jefferson, the framers of the Constitution were mere human beings and should be viewed as such by succeeding generations of Americans. They fall under the “blood” category that McCain explicitly excludes from the definition of American nationhood.

According to McCain and Jefferson, then, we shouldn’t celebrate Constitution Day as a commemoration of Sept. 17, 1787. That day came and went 231 years ago, and the 39 men who signed the Constitution are dead and gone. What, then, should we celebrate on this day?

Here again, McCain and Jefferson are clear. McCain urges us to remember and celebrate American “ideals” reflected in the Constitution. And Jefferson, though he had little reverence for the Constitution, gave his authorship of the Declaration of Independence top billing on his tombstone. Men like McCain, Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams or Alexander Hamilton live for a while and then are gone; true ideals, such as those expressed in the opening of the Declaration of Independence and passionately embraced by American heroes from Washington to McCain, have an ever-present life of their own.

In an early speech, Abraham Lincoln pointed to the Declaration as the key to making the Union “worthy of saving.” The political existence of the American Union as represented in the Constitution and embodied in the institutions it creates was not, in other words, self-evidently valuable. For Lincoln, the Constitution shouldn’t be revered simply because it’s our Constitution, nor should the Founders be revered because they are ours. The Constitution is valuable only because it follows and implements the self-evident truths of the Declaration — our God-given natural rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and to governments that equally secure those rights for all. The Founders achieved great things only by embracing and upholding these truths.

McCain’s profound point for our time is that ideas and ideals — not blood, soil, dead men, or paper constitutions — are the foundation of our nation and the core of our identity as American citizens. Let’s celebrate this Constitution Day, then, in the way Sen. McCain and Thomas Jefferson recommend: by recommitting ourselves to the kind of idealism that makes the Constitution and its framers worthy of commemorating.

Written by Adam Seagrave