Compute Canadian: Building a successful and federated computational research enterprise, together

Written by   on June 01, 2017

Canada is a federated nation, and this is particularly visible in areas of research funding, where both the federal and provincial orders of government play a role. In building a successful digital research infrastructure to support Canadian science and scholarship, we must recognize that reality, and rely on the successful examples of many organizations in Canada and around the world that embrace such a federated approach.

In this discussion paper, my colleague Jill Kowalchuck and I lay out what we hope to be the beginnings of a discussion of what a renewed federation for supporting Canadian science with advanced research computing and data could look like.

Executive Summary

Computing and data, and the expertise and tools to make use of both, is now central to all fields of study. Ten years after the creation of Compute Canada in response to the National Platforms Fund call, and after the Naylor Report on science funding, it is an apt time for the Canadian community built around this national research platform to take stock. Is it doing what we need it to do for Canadian researchers? Is it working the way we want it to? What should a Canadian computation and data platform for supporting research look like in the coming years? This document aims to begin that discussion within the community.

Here we propose seven principles to guide us in this discussion — that our project should serve Canadian research in a researcher-centred, service-oriented, and truly national way; and that it should operate as a true federation of equal partners, interoperable but not identical, collaborative and up-to-date. We suggest in particular that it is vital that our national platform is adaptive and responsive to researchers, making choices driven by research needs and not technical choices, and should make full use of the diversity and specialization that a Canadian federation and its partners offer.

From those principles, we make evidence-based proposals for a renewed Canadian organization. Comparisons with successful examples of federated organizations within Canada and abroad suggest that while the basic architecture of our federation is sound, important roles and relationships need to be clarified. While a central office must be responsible for the processes of defining priorities, strategies, and standards of interoperability, a successful federation requires those processes to have buy-in from partners committed to the goals of the federation. The Board of Directors of the central office in a federation must have experience and training to handle the delicate task of governing a central office but being responsible to a national community. The Members need adequate visibility into the operations of the central office and the federation as a whole so that they can support their vital role to the organization. And that engagement needs to extend to all who are invested in the success of research in Canada: regional staff and Boards, institutional staff, researchers and funders, and other organizations that provide digital infrastructure for research in Canada. This document focusses on Compute Canada in particular, but the principles and proposals apply to any digital research infrastructure providers, or the system as a whole.

Success for this document will mean starting conversations, inspiring other documents and differing points of view, and the emerging of a consensus within the community of what a renewed national platform for the next ten years looks like. That does not mean this document is a straw-man. The authors have played roles in the national platform starting at its inception, from researcher to consortium and regional (east and west) staff and management, and within the Compute Canada central office, and hope that experience plus the benefit of some distance have produced a coherent and compelling vision of what the Compute Canada national project could be. But what matters is not this proposal; it is what the community as a whole decides it wants its national platform to be.