A St. Lawrence graduate, now an assistant professor at the University, is part of a team of researchers that was awarded a National Science Foundation grant of $1.2 million to research high-performance computer components, their software, and how to make both perform better and last longer.
“For more than a decade, computing advancements have not been able to keep up with the kinds of performance gains that we saw 20 or 30 years ago,” says Kevin Angstadt, assistant professor of computer science at St. Lawrence and Class of 2014 alumnus. Angstadt, along with collaborators from the University of Michigan and Arizona State University recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to evaluate computers longevity and performance.
The grant includes $100,000 support for student and faculty research at St. Lawrence University over the course of five years to research automated techniques for designing and improving computer hardware and software.
“This grant is giving me an opportunity to come full circle,” Angstadt says. “When I was a student at St. Lawrence, my professors provided me with numerous opportunities to participate in research, and they helped prepare me for a successful career pursuing my interests. Now, I can provide those same opportunities to our current undergraduate students.
This grant also makes it possible to include my students in the research community at large where they can collaborate with peers, institutions, and industries. These sorts of interactions are often places where students will find—and possibly create—the opportunities that will launch their careers.”
The research project will explore computer components and software at an important inflection point and compare contemporary development to the kind of chip evolution last seen in the 1980s, when smaller and slower processors were replaced by bigger, faster units that ushered in the modern era of connected computing.
“For the past 10 years or more,” he says, “we’ve seen a different kind of computer evolution. This includes the addition of things like accelerators, processors, and other components that can help perform specialized tasks more effectively.”
This evolution resulted in unintended consequences. Now, it is more difficult to update these new components. This is affecting people like Angstadt, his colleagues, and other scientific researchers and engineers.
“We need our computers to work with us,” he says. “They must accommodate the changing needs of users and applications. But these components—accelerators, for instance—you can’t just talk to them or program them in the same languages that we teach to students and use with an everyday computer.”
A key question Angstadt hopes the research will answer is how to develop sustainable and transformative tools and practices to allow current computer science students to take advantage of this shift in computational hardware. Angstadt believes that answering this question is a necessary step in helping industry and academia achieve three things: make new processors easier to program, help scientific researchers and engineers make the most of computing innovations, and allow for new solutions to future problems.
Angstadt acknowledges that this is a tall order and stresses that this will not be the work of a single individual, or university, or company.
“The collaboration at the heart of this project helps explain why the NSF is investing in our research,” Angstadt says. “Because of the collaborative nature of this grant, St. Lawrence students will have more opportunities for mentorship and career development extending beyond the bounds of campus. Our students will travel to Michigan and Arizona to gain hands-on experience using the latest techniques and technology under active development across the country. Through these trips and experiences, they’ll be able to learn more about the directions and needs within industry and academia.”
When asked how he’ll measure the success of the project, Angstadt lists a few benchmarks and one he really hopes to see.
“Most importantly,” he says, “success will be seeing our students enjoy taking on this work—seeing them excited about the future that they’re going to help shape. That’s something I felt as a St. Lawrence student. It’s especially meaningful for me to see that continue with my students.”