High-performance lab expands via remote access

A high performance computing facility at Queen’s University enabled a secure portal earlier this week, allowing researchers to access their work from anywhere they can find an Internet connection.

The High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL), located at Queen’s in Kingston, Ont., was founded by Carleton University, Queen’s, Royal Military College, and the University of Ottawa to provide HPC resources to researchers. It now includes Ryerson University, Loyalist College, and Seneca College.

The biggest problem facing these researchers was gaining access to the facility without actually being there in person. VPN technology permitted some remote access, but it wasn’t ideal, said Ken Edgecombe, executive director of HPCVL. As a result, HPCVL set upon building a secure portal framework several years ago.

“The secure portal is something that we thought about doing when Entrust came out with TruePass, which is a roaming certificate approach with a zero footprint,” said Edgecombe. “It was basically a way to help us get away from this point-to-point encryption framework that almost everyone’s been working in.”

Working with Entrust Inc.’s encryption technology and Secure Global Desktop technology from Sun Microsystems, HPCVL was able to create a portal that was accessible from any Internet connection. More importantly, it allows researchers to access their data directly from HPCVL without having to worry about the security implications of leaving information on a local machine.

“This allows you to basically come in through any browser . . . and use our systems. It’s really an exciting thing in the sense that you don’t have to upload or download any files when you’re doing your work,” explained Edgecombe. “You can work on that bit of research that you’re doing as though you were right there.”

“If I go through the portal, all the graphics are done on an HPCVL machine locally and transmitted to me through my browser,” added Doug Mewhort, a professor in the psychology department at Queen’s. “I could be sitting in an airport and get access to HPCVL.”

The fact that the portal is secure – it is encrypted and sometimes doubled encrypted – is meaningful not only for basic security reasons but also to comply with privacy legislation like PIPEDA, HIPAA or FIPPA, said Edgecombe. Some of the researchers may be working on drug design research or performing clinical trials, for example.

“We have the realization, in Canada particularly, that privacy is not just a matter of randomizing some numbers. You have to be very careful,” said Edgecombe. “What this does is it takes away a lot of those concerns and it gives researchers solutions to the compliance regulations they need to meet.”

Another useful aspect of the portal is that is allows multiple parties to collaborate on the same files from different locations. A researcher in one part of the country can lean on experts for help at the main HPCVL facility in Queen’s.

“Parallel coding is still a difficult chore for people to do. When we have users who don’t know how to do code, we have experts in our office here who can help them,” said Mewhort.

“What the portal allows us to do is: If I’m having trouble, I can phone up one of the experts and they can say, ‘Well put the code into an editor and I’ll look at it with you.’ And we can both be looking at the same code on the same screen. I can do that from Timbuktu. That’s what’s really wonderful.”

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