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December, 2010

Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

December, 2010

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Multicore Workshop Attendees Work to Integrate Software and Hardware for Optimal Performance and New Applications

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    Attendees at the Second Barcelona Multicore Workshop

    The latest innovations in multicore technology are meaningless if the software you run is not written to take advantage of the advanced hardware design. To help address this and other issues, attendees at the Second Barcelona Multicore Workshop (BMW) met October 21-22, 2010, to critically examine developments in computer chip technology in the two years since the highly successful 2008 workshop.

    Today, sequential chips are almost entirely superseded by multicore processors. The hardware community is focused on designing these processors to maximize the potential performance. Meanwhile, software developers need to know how best to program for machines that use this multicore technology, particularly when it is used for desktop workloads or on mobile devices rather than traditional scientific applications.

    To help understand and solve these concerns in a multidisciplinary manner, representatives from Barcelona Supercomputing Center, Hipeac, Microsoft Research, and academics and researchers from Europe, Asia, and the United States met and cross-fertilized ideas across the hardware and software communities. Many participants report that the conference sparked new plans for collaboration, including company partnerships with academia and the sharing of valuable tools and ideas.

    Among the key discussions were:

    • Parallel programming models for the Barrelfish research operating system that Microsoft Research has developed with ETH Zurich in Switzerland. Barrelfish treats the internals of a multi-processor machine as a distributed system: Each core runs independently, and they communicate via message passing. Project leaders are working with Barcelona Supercomputing Center to use their experience with the StarSs programming model to write parallel programs that run on Barrelfish.
    • How developers are using low-power vector processors to apply ideas originally developed for high-performance computing to applications such as face and speech recognition, machine-learning, and column-store databases that might run in the cloud or on future mobile devices.
    • Panelists attending "Can Software Keep Up with the Pace of Hardware Development?" discussed what can be done to address the readiness of the software industry to meet the multicore/heterogeneous hardware trends. One major discussion explored whether processor designers could help address the issue by focusing less on specific applications and single-use benchmarks and more on the operating system and need for hardware to efficiently support many different processes on the machine at the same time. "There is a growing sense among those who do research into system software that computer architects—those who design processors and other system components—need to change their focus," reports Timothy Roscoe of ETH Zurich. "This is partly because many commercially important workloads are now OS-intensive, and some current processor designs incur a high overhead when switching to kernel mode, and partly because as chips become more parallel, the need to coordinate multiple tasks and communicate between multiple applications on cores becomes a key performance bottleneck."

    —Tim Harris, Senior Researcher, System and Networking Group at Microsoft Research Cambridge

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Computer Science Education Week Spotlights the Needs in U.S. Schools

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    Computer Science Education Week - www.csedweek.org

    As computer-science researchers, we at Microsoft Research are committed to strong computer-science education programs. With more than 800 researchers worldwide, we know firsthand the value of a solid computer-science education, which is why Microsoft Research is a proud supporter of the second annual Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), celebrated this year from December 5-11 in the United States.

    This week's focus on computer-science education couldn't be timelier. The recent report from the Association for Computing Machinery, Running on Empty, reveals that the state of computer-science education in the United States is alarming. Only nine states count computer-science courses as a core academic subject in high-school graduation requirements. Meanwhile, there will be a projected 1.4 million new computing jobs by 2018, so we need more states to see the light and join in producing qualified students.

    Making matters worse, funding cuts in local school districts have hit computer-science programs heavily. Statistics show that in many school districts, teachers who can teach computer science are being reassigned to mathematics or science classes. How can we as a nation afford to cut corners on this vital component of a 21st-century education?

    CSEdWeek is a call to action. It's a rallying point for teachers, parents, and schools at all levels—from K-12 through college—to focus attention on this problem and to build more robust computer-science education programs throughout the United States. Corporations, too, must make their voices heard in support of policies and programs that advance the state of computer-science education. I'm proud that Microsoft is a supporter of CSEdWeek and a strong advocate of computer-science education.

    At Microsoft Research, we have a number of tools designed for high-school students, showing them how scientific computing can be part of their daily lives—and fun, as well. Two of these are showcased on our associated website:

    • Worldwide Telescope is an award-winning program that enables children to see the skies from their desktops and to explore the world.
    • Pex4Fun is a highly innovative, interactive system that helps students learn to program by dueling against a computer in a social context.

    I encourage you to give them a try!

    Recently, Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, made a telling statement: "Effective computer-science education means far more than learning how to use a computer. It is about computational thinking: problem decomposition, data analysis, and solution design, all of which can be incorporated across disciplines and benefit students with interests outside of computer science. But we know that until we eliminate the roadblocks to quality computer-science education, we are denying access to important skills and future opportunities."

    Echoing the same sentiments, Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, said: "Today, more than ever, we need to empower students with the enthusiasm and creative problem-solving skills needed to address some of the world's greatest challenges, from improving healthcare to reducing our impact on the environment."

    Do you want to do more to advance computer-science education? You can explore CSEdWeek resources, including tools; suggestions for celebrations, reports, and statistics lesson plans; and event listings across the United States and Canada. You also can sign this pledge in support of CSEdWeek. And please don't confine your activism to this week. Boosting the state of computer-science education in the United States is a 24/7/52 matter!

    —Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science for the External Research division of Microsoft Research

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Bioinformatics Tools Promote Life-Saving Research

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    On November 30, I appeared on Health Tech Today, where I chatted with Dr. Bill Crounse about the Microsoft Biology Foundation and how it will help scientists advance their research. This interview marks yet another opportunity for Microsoft External Research to spread the word about our open-source work in developing tools that, as Dr. Crounse noted, provide researchers with "the potential to discover amazing things and solve big problems." 

    Health Tech Today Video: Beatriz Diaz Acosta

    The heart of the interview was a discussion of the overarching goal of the Microsoft Biology Foundation, which is to develop a set of tools that enable researchers to more easily and effectively collaborate and thereby expedite new discoveries.  I explained how researchers around the world have come up with their own data formats—their own unique standards on how to encode, share, and work with data. They have developed all these individual languages, and now this profusion of tongues is impeding collaboration. In essence, we have a scientific cacophony, with researchers speaking different languages through the data.

    Through the Microsoft Biology Foundation, we're providing the building blocks to translate these many data files and formats into a common language. In addition to these file parsers, we also provide standard algorithms to assemble and align genetic sequence data, thereby obviating the need for each researcher to create his or her own unique version. Through these efforts, we're relieving researchers of onerous translation chores and allowing them to focus on solving real problems, like designing new drugs and developing new vaccines, which will ultimately save lives.

    As I discussed with Dr. Crounse, we're doing this by building an extensive and expandable library on the Microsoft .NET Framework, a technology that gives us the advantage of being interoperable with many different programming languages. I pointed out our goal of using tools like DeepZoom and Pivot to facilitate interactive visualization of massive quantities of data, such as the billions of base pairs found in the human genome. These new technologies have the potential to make it easier and more intuitive to identify patterns and spot outliers in the data. Such discoveries could lead to breakthroughs against some of the most feared diseases, including AIDS. I noted, in fact, how we are using the Microsoft Biology Foundation library to support David Heckerman's work in the eScience team at Microsoft Research, where they are working diligently to create a vaccine against HIV.

    I finished my interview with an appeal for medical researchers and biologists to visit www.research.microsoft.com/bio, where they can learn more about the Microsoft Biology Initiative and its open-source tools. As I noted, we need feedback from those working on the frontlines of medicine and biology in order to improve our tools and move forward in our quest to improve human health.

    —Beatriz Diaz Acosta, Senior Research Program Manager, Health and Wellbeing, the External Research division of Microsoft Research

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