Case study of

Imperial College London

How Synergy helped Imperial College London pioneer data visualization. 

The background 

Imperial College London had an ambitious goal—to build the largest multi-monitor display in Europe to power its data visualization program. With the help of Synergy, Data Science designed and built an observatory unlike anything ever seen before. The massive setup fills up an entire room and uses 32 separate computers to keep it running. To say that it’s impressive would be an understatement.

We had a chance to talk to Dr. Ovidiu Serban, Research Fellow at Data Science Institute, Imperial College London to learn more about the observatory and how it was built with Synergy. This case study covers some of the challenges the team faced when building this one-of-a-kind observatory and highlights the benefits they experienced by choosing Synergy as their solution for controlling multiple computers with one keyboard and mouse.

Synergy is a robust and reliable solution that removes the difficulty of sharing a mouse and keyboard between multiple computers.

Dr. Ovidiu Serban

About Imperial College

Imperial College London is a global top ten university with a world-class reputation in science, engineering, business, and medicine. The Data Science Institute is one of the six Global Institutes of Imperial College London, created to address some of the most important issues facing the world today, ranging from big data and molecular engineering to healthcare and global warming.

The main goal of the Global Institutes is to bring together researchers from several disciplines to promote collaboration with policymakers and businesses and provide independent scientific advice. The Data Science Institute hosts researchers and students conducting their own academic research topics across multiple research areas, from Business Analytics to Data learning, from Biomedical Informatics to Data Visualisation.

Facts about Imperial College London:

  • Imperial is home to 17,000 students and 8,000 staff.
  • Over 6,700 degrees are awarded by Imperial College London every year.
  • The College attracts undergraduates from more than 125 countries.
  • Distinguished members of the College have included 14 Nobel laureates and three Fields Medallists.

In November 2015, the Data Science Institute designed and built the largest Data Observatory (DO) of its kind in Europe. The DO visualizes data across 100 million+ pixels to promote the communication of complex data sets and analysis in an immersive and multi-dimensional environment. To build this solution, the Data Visualisation team at Imperial College had to use Synergy.

Building the Data Observatory

"Wow!" is one of the first words people say when they see the Data Observatory in person for the first time. The unique setup consists of 64 full HD Samsung UD46D-P Professional Video Wall Monitors, powered by 32 rendering nodes arranged as 4 rows and 16 columns. The total height of the visualization screen comes to 2.53m, and 313-degree surround vision.

The most impressive part, however, is the resolution. At 30,720 x 4320, it's believed to be the largest in Europe, with 132.7 million total pixels. As you can imagine, powering a workstation of this size is beyond the practical capability of a standard hardware KVM. Synergy was one of the only viable solutions available to control all the operating systems and monitors with one keyboard and mouse.

"It was on everybody's mind to use Synergy's software to control every computer with one keyboard and mouse."
- Dr. Ovidiu Serban, Research Fellow at Data Science Institute, Imperial College London

Customizing Synergy

The Data Observatory isn't touch-enabled and requires a mouse and keyboard to interact with the screens. As a result, the Data Visualisation team had to build custom controllers and an entire infrastructure built upon an open-source visualization environment developed from previous research initiatives.

Synergy connected all the machines in the Data Observatory, which also combined custom management solutions to power on screens, change inputs, manage software like open browsers, and refresh specific software. 

When everything fails, Synergy is still the most reliable tool we have around."
- Dr. Ovidiu Serban

Because the Data Visualisation team is made up of mostly computer scientists and data visualization experts with a computer science background, they were able to manually rewrite Synergy's configuration file to fit the Data Observatory's unique requirements.

Measuring the impact of Synergy

With 32 machines and 64 screens in a very packed space, the Data Science Institute requires daily system administration. The heat dissipation alone causes hardware failures. So when considering a solution to control all devices with one keyboard and mouse, they wanted something that would work without a lot of maintenance and allow teams to focus on research rather than debugging.

Using the number of crashes as the main metric of performance, the Data Visualisation team noted that Synergy had the least number of crashes per day out of all the software solutions they had considered to manage their Data Observatory’s displays. 

Imperial College London plans to continue using Synergy in its Data Observatory for the foreseeable future. 

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