Doe Science news source
The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2018-01-09 12:05:37
  • Article ID: 687675

Q&A: Alan Heirich and Elliott Slaughter Take On SLAC's Big Data Challenges

As members of the lab's Computer Science Division, they develop the tools needed to handle ginormous data volumes produced by the next generation of scientific discovery machines.

  • Credit: Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Members of SLAC’s Computer Science Division. From left: Alex Aiken, Elliott Slaughter and Alan Heirich.

As the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory builds the next generation of powerful instruments for groundbreaking research in X-ray science, astronomy and other fields, its Computer Science Division is preparing for the onslaught of data these instruments will produce.

The division’s initial focus is on LCLS-II, an upgrade to the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser that will fire 8,000 times faster than the current version. LCLS-II promises to provide completely new views of the atomic world and its fundamental processes. However, the jump in firing rate goes hand and in hand with an explosion of scientific data that would overwhelm today’s computing architectures.

In this Q&A, SLAC computer scientists Alan Heirich and Elliott Slaughter talk about their efforts to develop new computing capabilities that will help the lab cope with the coming data challenges.

Heirich, who joined the lab last April, earned a PhD from the California Institute of Technology and has many years of experience working in industry and academia. Slaughter joined last June; he’s a recent PhD graduate from Stanford University, where he worked under the guidance of Alex Aiken, professor of computer science at Stanford and director of SLAC’s Computer Science Division.

What are the computing challenges you’re trying to solve?

Heirich: The major challenge we’re looking at now is that LCLS-II will produce so much more data than the current X-ray laser. Data rates will increase 10,000 times, from about 100 megabytes per second today to a terabyte per second in a few years. We need to think about the computing tools and infrastructure necessary to take control over that enormous future data stream.

Slaughter: Our development of new computing architectures is aimed at analyzing LCLS-II data on the fly, providing initial results within a minute or two. This allows researchers to evaluate the quality of their data quickly, make adjustments and collect data in the most efficient way. However, real-time data analysis is quite challenging if you collect data with an X-ray laser that fires a million pulses per second.      

How can real-time analysis be achieved?

Slaughter:  We won’t be able to do all this with just the computing capabilities we have on site. The plan is to send some of the most challenging LCLS-II data analyses to the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where extremely fast supercomputers will analyze the data and send the results back to us within minutes.

Our team has joined forces with Amedeo Perazzo, who leads the LCLS Controls and Data Systems Division, to develop the system that will run the analysis. Scientists doing experiments at LCLS will be able to define the details of that analysis, depending on what their scientific questions are.

Our goal is to be able to do the analysis in a very flexible way using all kinds of high-performance computers that have completely different hardware and architectures. In the future, these will also include exascale supercomputers that perform more than a billion billion calculations per second – up to a hundred times more than today’s most powerful machines.

Is it difficult to build such a flexible computing system?

Heirich:  Yes. Supercomputers are very complex with millions of processors running in parallel, and we need to figure out how to make use of their individual architectures most efficiently. At Stanford, we’re therefore developing a programming system, called Legion, that allows people to write programs that are portable across very different high-performance computer architectures.

Traditionally, if you want to run a program with the best possible performance on a new computer system, you may need to rewrite significant parts of the program so that it matches the new architecture. That’s very labor and cost intensive. Legion, on the other hand, is specifically designed to be used on diverse architectures and requires only relatively small tweaks when moving from one system to another. This approach prepares us for whatever the future of computing looks like. At SLAC, we’re now starting to adapt Legion to the needs of LCLS-II.  

We’re also looking into how we can visualize the scientific data after they are analyzed at NERSC. The analysis will be done on thousands of processors, and it’s challenging to orchestrate this process and put it together into one coherent visual picture. We just presented one way to approach this problem at the supercomputing conference SC17 in November.  

What’s the goal for the coming year?

Slaughter: We’re working with the LCLS team on building an initial data analysis prototype. One goal is to get a first test case running on the new system. This will be done with X-ray crystallography data from LCLS, which are used to reconstruct the 3-D atomic structure of important biomolecules, such as proteins. The new system will be much more responsive than the old one. It’ll be able to read and analyze data at the same time, whereas the old system can only do one or the other at any given moment. 

Will other research areas besides X-ray science profit from your work?

Slaughter: Yes. Alex is working on growing our division, identifying potential projects across the lab and expanding our research portfolio. Although we’re concentrating on LCLS-II right now, we’re interested in joining other projects, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). SLAC is building the LSST camera, a 3.2-gigapixel digital camera that will capture unprecedented images of the night sky. But it will also produce enormous piles of data – millions of gigabytes per year. Progress in computer science is needed to efficiently handle these data volumes. 

Heirich: SLAC and its close partnership with Stanford Computer Science make for a great research environment. There is also a lot of interest in machine learning. In this form of artificial intelligence, computer programs get better and more efficient over time by learning from the tasks they performed in the past. It’s a very active research field that has seen a lot of growth over the past five years, and machine learning has become remarkably effective in solving complex problems that previously needed to be done by human beings.

Many groups at SLAC and Stanford are exploring how they can exploit machine learning, including teams working in X-ray science, particle physics, astrophysics, accelerator research and more. But there are very fundamental computer science problems to solve. As machine learning replaces some conventional analysis methods, one big question is, for example, whether the solutions it generates are as reliable as those obtained in the conventional way.

LCLS and NERSC are DOE Office of Science user facilities. Legion is being developed at Stanford with funding from DOE’s ExaCT Combustion Co-Design CenterScientific Data Management, Analysis and Visualizationprogram and Exascale Computing Project (ECP) as well as other contributions. SLAC’s Computer Science Division receives funding from the ECP.

SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, Calif., SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more information, please visit

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Columbia Researchers Squeeze Light into Nanoscale Devices and Circuits

Columbia investigators have made a major breakthrough in nanophotonics research, with their invention of a novel "home-built" cryogenic near-field optical microscope that has enabled them to directly image, for the first time, the propagation and dynamics of graphene plasmons at variable temperatures down to negative 250 degrees Celsius. If researchers can harness this nanolight, they will be able to improve sensing, subwavelength waveguiding, and optical transmission of signals.

Self-Assembling 3D Battery Would Charge in Seconds

A cross-campus collaboration led by Ulrich Wiesner, professor of engineering at Cornell University, has resulted in a novel energy storage device architecture that has the potential for lightning-quick charges for electronic devices.

Understanding the Generation of Light-Induced Electrical Current in Atomically Thin Nanomaterials

Scientists added an imaging capability to Brookhaven Lab's Center for Functional Nanomaterials that could provide the optoelectronic information needed to improve the performance of devices for power generation, communications, data storage, and lighting.

Diamond 'Spin-Off' Tech Could Lead to Low-Cost Medical Imaging and Drug Discovery Tools

An international team led by scientists at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley discovered how to exploit defects in nanoscale and microscale diamonds and potentially enhance the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance systems while eliminating the need for their costly and bulky superconducting magnets.

PROSPECTing For Antineutrinos

The Precision Reactor Oscillation and Spectrum Experiment (PROSPECT) has completed installation of a novel antineutrino detector that will probe the possible existence of a new form of matter - sterile neutrinos.

How to Cope with Cases of Mistaken Identity: MINERvA's Tale of Pions and Neutrinos

Neutral pion production is a major character in a story of mistaken identity worthy of an Agatha Christie novel.

Perfecting the Noise-Canceling Neutrino Detector

MicroBooNE neutrino experiment cuts through the noise, clearing the way for signals made by the hard-to-detect particle.

Supersonic Waves May Help Electronics Beat the Heat

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory made the first observations of waves of atomic rearrangements, known as phasons, propagating supersonically through a vibrating crystal lattice--a discovery that may dramatically improve heat transport in insulators and enable new strategies for heat management in future electronics devices.

Riding Bacterium to the Bank

Jet fuel, pantyhose and plastic soda bottles are all products currently derived from petroleum. Sandia National Laboratories scientists have demonstrated a new technology based on bioengineered bacteria that makes it feasible to produce all three from renewable plant sources.

Flexible, Highly Efficient Multimodal Energy Harvesting

A piezoelectric ceramic foam supported by a flexible polymer support provides a 10-fold increase in the ability to harvest mechanical and thermal energy over standard piezo composites, according to Penn State researchers.

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Power to the People

The University of Utah College of Engineering has received a $2 million grant to create a laboratory and develop new technology for communities with backup power sources, known as microgrids, so they can quickly and more securely operate in the event of a massive power outage due to a natural disaster or cyberattack.

The U. S. Department of Energy Announces $34 Million for Small Business Research and Development Grants

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that the Department of Energy will award 219 grants totaling $34 million to 183 small businesses in 41 states. Funded through DOE's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, today's selections are for Phase I research and development.

Raising the Heat to Lower the Cost of Solar Energy

Sandia National Laboratories will receive $10.5 million from the Department of Energy to research and design a cheaper and more efficient solar energy system.The work focuses on refining a specific type of utility-scale solar energy technology that uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a receiver on a tower.

Solar Turbines, Inc. Selects Penn State to Establish Center of Excellence in Gas Turbines

After completing an extensive evaluation of institutions of higher learning in the United States and Europe, Solar Turbines Incorporated has chosen Penn State as a university partner to establish a center of excellence in gas turbines. The center involves numerous faculty across Penn State's College of Engineering.

ORNL Facility Receives American Nuclear Society's Historic Landmark Designation

The American Nuclear Society has designated the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory an ANS Nuclear Historic Landmark, recognizing more than 50 years of isotope production and nuclear fuel cycle research.

Steven Cowley named director of DOE's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Steven Cowley, a theoretical physicist and international authority on fusion energy, has been named director of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), effective July 1.

Scientists Turn X-ray Laser Into World's Fastest Water Heater

Scientists have used a powerful X-ray laser at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to heat water from room temperature to 100,000 degrees Celsius in less than a tenth of a picosecond, or millionth of a millionth of a second.

PNNL Part of a New National Center for Near-Atomic Resolution of Biological Molecules

A collaboration between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Oregon Health & Science University has been chosen as a national center for a Nobel Prize-winning method of imaging, cryo-electron microscopy, that is revolutionizing structural biology.

SLAC Will Open One of Three NIH National Service Centers for Cryo-Electron Microscopy

The National Institutes of Health announced today that it will establish a national service and training center for cryogenic electron microscopy research at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Planck Collaboration Wins 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize

The Planck Team--including researchers in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's (Berkeley Lab's) Computational Research and Physics divisions--have been awarded the 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize.

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Cracking the Code of Superconductivity and Magnetism

Neutron probes and theory reveal how electrons cooperate at lower temperatures.

The Secret to Measuring an Antineutrino's Energy

Scientists are developing better models that describe both neutrino and antineutrino data, which can offer insights into the nature of the universe.

How to Cope with Cases of Mistaken Identity: MINERvA's Tale of Pions and Neutrinos

Neutral pion production is a major character in a story of mistaken identity worthy of an Agatha Christie novel.

Perfecting the Noise-Canceling Neutrino Detector

MicroBooNE neutrino experiment cuts through the noise, clearing the way for signals made by the hard-to-detect particle.

Keeping Tabs on Polysulfides in Batteries

Optimizing lithium-sulfur battery electrolytes for long life.

Huge "Thermometer" Takes Temperatures of Tiny Samples

New spectroscopic technique measures heat in itty-bitty volumes that could reveal insights for electronics and energy technology.

Water, Water, Everywhere, but How Does It Flow?

Scientists use new X-ray technique to see how water moves at the molecular level.

Magnetized Plasmas That "Twist Light" Can Produce Powerful Microscopes and More

A non-twisting laser beam moving through magnetized plasma turns into an optical vortex that traps, rotates, and controls microscopic particles, opening new frontiers in imaging.

Whistling While You Work: Fusion Scientists Find Inspiration in Atmospheric Whistles

Just like lightning, fusion plasmas contain odd electromagnetic whistler waves that could control destructive electrons in fusion reactors.

Zero Tolerance in Tokamaks: Eliminating Small Instabilities Before They Become Disruptions

Energetic ions and beam heating cause or calm instabilities, depending on the tokamak's magnetic field.


Monday May 07, 2018, 10:30 AM

Introducing Graduate Students Across the Globe to Photon Science

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Wednesday May 02, 2018, 04:05 PM

Students from Massachusetts and Washington Win DOE's 28th National Science Bowl(r)

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Thursday April 12, 2018, 07:05 PM

The Race for Young Scientific Minds

Argonne National Laboratory

Wednesday March 14, 2018, 02:05 PM

Q&A: Al Ashley Reflects on His Efforts to Diversify SLAC and Beyond

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday February 15, 2018, 12:05 PM

Insights on Innovation in Energy, Humanitarian Aid Highlight UVA Darden's Net Impact Week

University of Virginia Darden School of Business

Friday February 09, 2018, 11:05 AM

Ivy League Graduate, Writer and Activist with Dyslexia Visits CSUCI to Reframe the Concept of Learning Disabilities

California State University, Channel Islands

Wednesday January 17, 2018, 12:05 PM

Photographer Adam Nadel Selected as Fermilab's New Artist-in-Residence for 2018

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Wednesday January 17, 2018, 12:05 PM

Fermilab Computing Partners with Argonne, Local Schools for Hour of Code

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Wednesday December 20, 2017, 01:05 PM

Q&A: Sam Webb Teaches X-Ray Science from a Remote Classroom

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Monday December 18, 2017, 01:05 PM

The Future of Today's Electric Power Systems

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Monday December 18, 2017, 12:05 PM

Supporting the Development of Offshore Wind Power Plants

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Tuesday October 03, 2017, 01:05 PM

Stairway to Science

Argonne National Laboratory

Thursday September 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

After-School Energy Rush

Argonne National Laboratory

Thursday September 28, 2017, 10:05 AM

Bringing Diversity Into Computational Science Through Student Outreach

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Thursday September 21, 2017, 03:05 PM

From Science to Finance: SLAC Summer Interns Forge New Paths in STEM

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday September 07, 2017, 02:05 PM

Students Discuss 'Cosmic Opportunities' at 45th Annual SLAC Summer Institute

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday August 31, 2017, 05:05 PM

Binghamton University Opens $70 Million Smart Energy Building

Binghamton University, State University of New York

Wednesday August 23, 2017, 05:05 PM

Widening Horizons for High Schoolers with Code

Argonne National Laboratory

Saturday May 20, 2017, 12:05 PM

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Graduates Urged to Embrace Change at 211th Commencement

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Monday May 15, 2017, 01:05 PM

ORNL, University of Tennessee Launch New Doctoral Program in Data Science

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday April 07, 2017, 11:05 AM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jonathan Kirzner

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Wednesday April 05, 2017, 12:05 PM

High-Schooler Solves College-Level Security Puzzle From Argonne, Sparks Interest in Career

Argonne National Laboratory

Tuesday March 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jenica Jacobi

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Friday March 24, 2017, 10:40 AM

Great Neck South High School Wins Regional Science Bowl at Brookhaven Lab

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Wednesday February 15, 2017, 04:05 PM

Middle Schoolers Test Their Knowledge at Science Bowl Competition

Argonne National Laboratory

Friday January 27, 2017, 04:00 PM

Haslam Visits ORNL to Highlight State's Role in Discovering Tennessine

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Tuesday November 08, 2016, 12:05 PM

Internship Program Helps Foster Development of Future Nuclear Scientists

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday May 13, 2016, 04:05 PM

More Than 12,000 Explore Jefferson Lab During April 30 Open House

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Monday April 25, 2016, 05:05 PM

Giving Back to National Science Bowl

Ames Laboratory

Friday March 25, 2016, 12:05 PM

NMSU Undergrad Tackles 3D Particle Scattering Animations After Receiving JSA Research Assistantship

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Tuesday February 02, 2016, 10:05 AM

Shannon Greco: A Self-Described "STEM Education Zealot"

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Monday November 16, 2015, 04:05 PM

Rare Earths for Life: An 85th Birthday Visit with Mr. Rare Earth

Ames Laboratory

Tuesday October 20, 2015, 01:05 PM

Meet Robert Palomino: 'Give Everything a Shot!'

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Tuesday April 22, 2014, 11:30 AM

University of Utah Makes Solar Accessible

University of Utah

Wednesday March 06, 2013, 03:40 PM

Student Innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Seeks Brighter, Smarter, and More Efficient LEDs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday November 16, 2012, 10:00 AM

Texas Tech Energy Commerce Students, Community Light up Tent City

Texas Tech University

Wednesday November 23, 2011, 10:45 AM

Don't Get 'Frosted' Over Heating Your Home This Winter

Temple University

Wednesday July 06, 2011, 06:00 PM

New Research Center To Tackle Critical Challenges Related to Aircraft Design, Wind Energy, Smart Buildings

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday April 22, 2011, 09:00 AM

First Polymer Solar-Thermal Device Heats Home, Saves Money

Wake Forest University

Friday April 15, 2011, 12:25 PM

Like Superman, American University Will Get Its Energy from the Sun

American University

Thursday February 10, 2011, 05:00 PM

ARRA Grant to Help Fund Seminary Building Green Roof

University of Chicago

Tuesday December 07, 2010, 05:00 PM

UC San Diego Installing 2.8 Megawatt Fuel Cell to Anchor Energy Innovation Park

University of California San Diego

Monday November 01, 2010, 12:50 PM

Rensselaer Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center Announces First Deployment of New Technology on Campus

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday September 10, 2010, 12:40 PM

Ithaca College Will Host Regional Clean Energy Summit

Ithaca College

Tuesday July 27, 2010, 10:30 AM

Texas Governor Announces $8.4 Million Award to Create Renewable Energy Institute

Texas Tech University

Friday May 07, 2010, 04:20 PM

Creighton University to Offer New Alternative Energy Program

Creighton University

Wednesday May 05, 2010, 09:30 AM

National Engineering Program Seeks Subject Matter Experts in Energy

JETS Junior Engineering Technical Society

Wednesday April 21, 2010, 12:30 PM

Students Using Solar Power To Create Sustainable Solutions for Haiti, Peru

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Showing results

0-4 Of 2215