Company uses UCSD supercomputer to thwart cyber crime

Hal Lonas, Webroot chief technology officer

A partnership between the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD and a company that makes anti-virus and internet security software is helping to keep computer users safer from online criminals.

The university's most powerful computer, called Comet, began operations in 2015 and was built with $27 million in grants from the National Science Foundation. It has long been used by researchers from around the country to perform complex calculations in many different scientific disciplines, from analyzing genomes to simulating the environment surrounding black holes.

The supercomputer is also used by private industry for research and development, as well as crunching large chunks of data, said Ron Hawkins, director of industry relations with the San Diego Supercomputer Center. At any point in time, he said, the center has ongoing agreements with a dozen or so companies, from startups to established firms.

Among the current users is Webroot, which makes software to protect businesses and consumers from a range of cyber threats, said Hal Lonas, the company's chief technology officer. The company is headquartered in Colorado and has a San Diego office in the UTC area.

Ron Hawkins, director of industry relations with the San Diego Supercomputer Center

For its software, the company has created computer models designed to detect fake websites that are used by hackers to gather user information such as passwords and personal data. The company uses the supercomputer on a daily basis to update its models, feeding in millions of web pages to "teach" the program to distinguish between authentic and fraudulent sites.

A common technique of hackers is to send out large numbers of "phishing" emails, that warn recipients their accounts have been compromised and they need to reset their password and user ID. When they click on the link, they are directed to a site that will capture their login information, which can then be used by the criminals for infiltrating systems, stealing data and other illegal actions.

Phishing emails are designed to look like emails from legitimate companies, or from senders within the recipient's own organization. Links embedded within the emails can introduce malware to a system if the recipient clicks on the link.

Webroot's "real time anti-phishing" software instantly checks the link as a user clicks on it to determine if it's suspicious, Lonas said. If so, a warning message pops up on the user's screen. The whole analysis takes place in a fraction of a second, Lonas said.

The Comet supercomputer allows Webroot to update its computer models much more quickly and at a lower cost than other cloud computing options, said Lonas. For example, he said, data crunching that takes two hours on the UCSD supercomputer, would take anywhere from 20 to 60 hours with traditional computing facilities.

"It's much, much faster to run (the updates) with the supercomputer center," he said.

UCSD's supercomputer ranks in the top three of such computers at U.S. universities, with the other two being in Illinois and Texas, said Hawkins.

The computing power of supercomputers is measured in "petaflops," which equals one quadrillion calculations per second. (A quadrillion is 1 followed by 15 zeroes.) Comet's peak output is 2.76 petaflops, or nearly three quadrillion calculations per second.

"It's got a lot going on," said Hawkins.

Under the university's agreement with the NSF, 90 percent of Comet's time must be used for scientific research. A committee established by the NSF allocates time on its network of supercomputers, including Comet, through a process of peer-reviewed proposals. "It's very competitive," said Hawkins.

The university has discretion over the other 10 percent of Comet's time, which could be used by UCSD researchers, others in the UC system, or private industry, said Hawkins. UCSD can only recover its direct costs for operating the system through fees charged to businesses.

The center took in $6.65 million from industry in its 2017 fiscal year, and $4.25 million in FY 2018, according to the center's 2017-18 annual report.

There's no shortage of requests to use the supercomputer for scientific and business purposes, said Hawkins.

"There's a rather insatiable demand for this computing power," he said.

The money collected from industry helps pays the center's bills, but the arrangements also result in collaborations that advance the university's research and educational missions, said Hawkins. Discoveries made with the help of Comet also fuel the local economy, he said.

"It's a unique local resource that you're not going to find in every city in the U.S.," he said.

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