Bright lights, big data: how Argonne is bringing supercomputing and X-rays together for scientific breakthroughs

Polaris photo

Argonne’s Polaris supercomputer provides advanced capabilities for workloads involving simulation, data analysis and artificial intelligence tasks. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

With the combination of Argonne’s supercomputer, Polaris, and the powerful X-ray beams of the Advanced Photon Source, the future of science is ultrafast. This team-up is paying dividends now, but it points to the future: an upgraded APS and the ALCF's Aurora exascale supercomputer, which will transform science at Argonne.

The Advanced Photon Source (APS) is one of the most productive X-ray light sources in the world. In a typical year, roughly 5,500 scientists from around the world use the ultrabright light beams it generates to look deep into all kinds of materials. Researchers using the APS are able to catch the movement of single ions through a battery, trace even the subtlest changes in catalysts as they react and observe the makeup of proteins atom by atom.

But for those researchers, what their various X-ray techniques detect is only half the story. That data then needs to be analyzed, and for that, scientists need advanced computing. That’s what the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) provides, with its array of powerful analysis machines. The APS and ALCF are Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facilities at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, that are open to the world’s scientific community.

Polaris is here to serve the scientific community, including the thousands of scientists using Argonne’s user facilities,” said Michael Papka, director of the ALCF and a deputy associate laboratory director at Argonne. ​We’ve dedicated four racks of nodes to look at the integration of experimental science and high performance computing, and we’re excited about how we can implement the capabilities of Polaris across many DOE user facilities.”

Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (APS)

The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne is one of the most productive X-ray light sources in the world. In a typical year, 5,500 scientists from around the world use it for research in a wide variety of disciplines. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

One of those facilities is the APS, and leading the charge there is Nicholas Schwarz, principal computer scientist and group leader. Schwarz has been working for months with his colleagues at the ALCF to test out faster data processing with Polaris. The eventual goal, he says, is real-time autonomous data analysis that scientists can use to drive their experiments.

Imagine, he says, that you are trying to use X-rays to trace microscopic cracks as they form in a new type of material. You want to be able to not only identify where the cracks are, but quickly train the X-ray instruments on the likely spot where they will form next, to see how the material behaves. Getting your data back in seconds instead of hours will enable you to change the experiment as it’s running, to get the most and best observations possible.

The computing needs to be ready for the science,” Schwarz said. ​You can’t tell a material to stop cracking or a cell to stop dividing until computing resources are ready. You can’t wait months to get analyzed data back.”

With Polaris, this is exactly what Schwarz and his colleagues at the ALCF have been testing. Using data from four different X-ray techniques — all of which will be greatly enhanced by the upgraded APS — the team has been working on using Polaris to respond to urgent scientific data requests and turn them around without delay.

This sounds simple, but Bill Allcock, director of operations at the ALCF, will tell you that it’s more complicated than it seems. The ALCF serves many different facilities and scientific endeavors at once, and scheduling computing time on the machine is a constantly shifting proposition. Among the biggest issues the ALCF team is working out with Polaris is preemption, or recognizing which projects are more urgent than others and moving them to the front of the queue.

We need near-real-time analysis for deadline-sensitive jobs, which conflicts with our traditional workload of large, long running jobs,” Allcock said. ​To manage that conflict efficiently, we need to look at the available rack space and find out where those jobs fit. It’s like playing Tetris. With proper scheduling we can keep the racks busy and still make room when jobs show up that need the time quickly.”

The team recently finished their first fully automated end-to-end test of the preemptible queues on Polaris using data collected during an APS experiment. The process relies on Globus, a research automation platform created by researchers at Argonne and the University of Chicago, to run the computational flows that link the two facilities. Globus manages the numerous high-speed data transfers, ALCF computations and data cataloging and distribution steps involved in an experiment.

Earlier this year, we successfully carried out our first experimental runs with no humans in the loop,” Papka said. ​This is truly the vision we have been working toward, and now through a colossal effort by the Argonne-Globus team, we have it working beyond the one-off demonstrations of the past. The goal is to enable this at as many APS experiment stations as possible ahead of the upgrade.”

We are creating a new generation of smart instruments, in which advanced computing is not just an important adjunct to experiment, but an integral part of the scientific apparatus,” added Ian Foster, Globus co-inventor and director of Argonne’s Data Science and Learning division. ​We expect the new computationally enhanced APS to enable new discoveries in many domains.”

Though a powerful machine in its own right, Polaris also serves as the next step on the road that leads to Aurora, Argonne’s first exascale supercomputer. Aurora is currently being installed at the ALCF, and when it is complete, its processing capabilities will dwarf those of Polaris — it will be able to deliver more than 2 billion billion calculations per second.

Aurora is scheduled to come online later this year. Meanwhile the upgraded APS will shine its first light in 2024, after a year-long installation period during which the X-ray beams will shut down. The goal of teams at both the APS and the ALCF is to enable as much science and data processing speed as possible on the first day the upgraded APS is online.

But both teams know that the capabilities of their combined efforts will only grow from there.

For APS users, our goal is to have all the computing power for them when they need it, on demand,” Schwarz said. ​From a scientist’s perspective, the bottleneck is not having analyzed data when the experiment needs it. For the ALCF, this is a capability that can be emulated for other user facilities, and can serve as a model for how experimental and observational facilities integrate with computing centers.”


The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

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