The History of HIPerWall:Origins

This is my attempt to relate the history of the Highly Interactive Parallelized display Wall (HIPerWall) research project that led to the development of some of the highest resolution tiled display walls in the world and eventually led to Hiperwall Inc., which commercialized the technology. This is the first part of several that will explore the origins, architecture, and software evolution of the HIPerWall and related projects.

The project was conceived as a result of collaborative brainstorming between myself and my c0lleague Falko Kuester, an expert in computer graphics and visualization. For a few years, we had been exploring project ideas to combine large-scale parallel and distributed computing with visualization to allow scientists to explore enormous data sets. An earlier proposal to build a 100 megapixel cave wasn’t funded, but was well enough received that we were encouraged that we were on the right track.

We saw a Major Research Instrumentation opportunity from the National Science Foundation and decided to propose a flat-panel based high resolution display system. There were other, somewhat similar systems being developed, including one from Jason Leigh at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at UIC called SAGE. These other systems made architectural choices and control choices that we wanted to try differently. For example, the best SAGE systems at the time consisted of a rendering cluster connected by 10Gbps networks to the machines driving the displays, thus turning all the data to be rendered into network traffic. We wanted to develop an approach that worked very well over 1Gbps networks, which were becoming common and inexpensive at the time. We also intended to make the system highly interactive and flexible enough to show lots of different data types at once.

We wrote an NSF MRI proposal entitled HIPerWall:Development of a High-Performance Visualization System for Collaborative Earth System Sciences asking for $393,533. We got a great deal of help from Dr. Frank Wessel, who led UCI’s Research Computing effort, in developing the project management approach and with reviewing and integration of the proposal. We included several Co-PIs from appropriate application disciplines, including pollution and climate modelling, and hydrology.

The proposal was particularly well-timed because of the pending completion of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) building at UCI. The HIPerWall would have a prime spot in the visualization lab of the new building, thus would not have to fight for space with existing project. The proposal also explored the connectivity to the OptIPuter, Larry Smarr’s ambitious project to redefine computing infrastructure, and to Charlie Zender’s Earth System Modelling Facility, an IBM supercomputer at UCI.

I got the call from the program manager that we won the proposal and we needed to prepare a revised budget, because as with most NSF proposals, they were cutting the budget somewhat. I called Falko and he quickly called the program manager back. He was sufficiently convincing and enthusiastic, that all the money was restored, as the NSF project page shows.

The next part of this series will cover the hardware and initial software architecture of the HIPerWall.

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