High-performance computing meets higher learning

IT and supercomputing leaders convene at UAlberta to look into the digital future of post-secondary education and research.


The University of Alberta was host this week to a powerhouse conference that fostered discussions about the role of advanced computer technology in post-secondary education and research in Canada.

Joining forces for the first time under one roof, CUCCIO—Canada’s community of information technology leaders in higher education—and Compute Canada combined its two annual national conferences into one and partnered with the U of A to hold the event on campus. Titled "Shaping the Digital Landscape," the CANHEIT | HPCS conference was designed to provide insight into how advanced research computing and information technology services fit into the post-secondary landscape now and in the future. The event brought together some of the best minds in IT and supercomputing and showcased leading-edge research outcomes made possible by high-tech tools.

“The event provided an exceptional opportunity for researchers, practitioners, professionals and leaders in IT and computer science to meet and share knowledge, to develop and grow relationships and to be part of a unique opportunity to help shape the future of the digital landscape,” said Brian Stewart, deputy chief information officer for Information Services and Technology at the U of A.

The four-day conference, held at the U of A’s Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science June 19-22, keyed into topics that are front and centre for post-secondary schools: technology in teaching, learning and administration; shaping the digital landscape and advanced research computing. The event also featured keynote speakers offering their own perspectives on an ever-evolving digital world, including television’s Amazing Race host Jon Montgomery, sociobiologist Rebecca Costa, and Julielynn Wong, a physician, innovator and journalist.

The conference was a valuable opportunity for IT staff at the U of A to network with their peers from other institutions across Canada, Stewart said. The list of about 650 attendees included faculty members; computational researchers in academia, industry and government; technical experts; suppliers and IT professionals from the higher education community across Canada.

“It gives us a great ability to compare ourselves and to vet where we are going. We looked at our strategy and we are getting resonance about teaching, learning and research as being the core of an IT group in a university strategy.”

There was also discussion of challenges and opportunities within the higher education environment and insight into new tools, techniques and discoveries in computational-intensive research. High-performance computing plays a pivotal and growing role for post-secondary institutions, Stewart noted.

“The quantification of research evidence is growing rapidly—it’s not just hard science anymore, but humanities, education and other social sciences. The data-driven decisioning, the whole use of machine learning, drives the need for computing and for massive storage. The way we are actually using information is moving into a computing-supported environment. It’s not about documents anymore; it’s about data and the use of that data.”

Interactive technology is also about to explode, he predicted. “That will drive the need for more high-performance computing.”

The U of A, a leader itself in IT research, showcased its own ingenuity with demonstrations of Cepheus, a poker-playing computer program powered by artificial intelligence that solved the game of heads-up limit Texas hold ‘em. The program was developed by the university’s Computer Poker Research Group.

“The machine learning is very strong at the U of A—our computing science department is world-class—so it was great to be able to share that with our peers,” Stewart said. Conference-goers were also taken on tours of the U of A’s data centre, with in-house experts answering questions about the facility.

The conference was well-received by attendees, Stewart said. “I hope they leave with a heightened understanding and regard for the U of A, that this is a great campus, and that they’ll have created or deepened personal and professional connections. That’s what CANHEIT is all about.”