High technology is woven into the fabric of all modern universities, but the level of integration of technology at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust) is unprecedented for an educational institution in the Middle East.

At the early planning stage of its development, the designers were briefed to put cutting-edge technology at the heart of Kaust’s infrastructure. Moreover, the brief explicitly stipulated that the university’s architecture and amenities should perform at the highest levels of ecological sustainability.

“When we met with Kaust three years ago, we took them at their word about the importance of very high-performance building in terms of environmental issues,” says Bill Odell, one of the lead designers at US-based architect HOK, which was given the task of designing the campus in 2006. “Sustainability is the focus of the university’s research and, at a very early meeting, the client said the buildings should reflect that.”

The technology might be at the cutting edge, but the Kaust campus and its surrounding community buildings mix old and new. The design is strongly informed by traditional Saudi architectural styles.

Key facts

99 per cent – Unused capacity on Kaust’s fibre-optic cable network

48 – Number of laboratory ‘neighbourhoods’ on the Kaust campus

12,000 sq m – Size of Kaust’s solar panelling, which produces 3,300 hours a year of electricity

Source: MEED

Kaust’s vision was to evoke the Muslim world’s ancient centres of learning within a context of hi-tech science and research. So, while students enjoy access to 10 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) fibre-optic communication and supercomputer processing speeds, they also, perhaps without realising it, experience the benefit of building techniques that date back centuries.

The Kaust campus may not look like a traditional design, says Odell, but it is based on traditional principles. “Builders in this region have long held to a simple set of principles,” he says. “First, to erect buildings very close together, so that they shade each other. Second, to put roofs over everything to shield from the sunlight.”

Another example of traditional, sustainable architecture that has been incorporated into the Kaust design is the passive ventilation provided by thermal chimneys such as those found in Jeddah and elsewhere throughout the Middle East, which pull in cooler air by convection from shaded street-level areas.

“We were looking a lot at local and regional design influences,” says Odell. “The campus is located in an area with an extreme climate. It is not only very hot for three or four months of the year, it is also extremely humid.”

Environmental performance

The university’s buildings all boast high environmental performance credentials. All outdoor air intakes and interior spaces are monitored with carbon-dioxide sensors to ensure that appropriate levels of ventilation and fresh air are being supplied.

The campus also boasts a sophisticated building automation system, which provides data about energy use. This enables the amount of energy a specific room or block of a building is using to be monitored, and measures exactly how energy conservation strategies are working.

The campus’s buildings have been constructed to exploit natural light and ventilation as much as possible. The roofs carry 12,000 square metres of solar thermal and photovoltaic cells to harness the power of the sun, producing up to 3,300MW/hours of energy annually.

Halls and courtyards have been designed to maximise the use of natural daylight and to facilitate natural ventilation into the campus’s interior spaces.

The sustainable architecture of the Kaust campus has earned it a ‘platinum’ rating on the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (Leed) scale for environmental building standards produced by the US Green Building Council – the first such rating awarded in Saudi Arabia.

Technology also dominates the design of Kaust’s cutting-edge research labs. All 48 of its laboratory ‘neighbourhoods’ are designed to be exactly the same in terms of infrastructure. Research facilities include incubators, single-tenant and multi-tenant buildings with research categories of heavy, medium and light laboratories. Core laboratories cover imaging, nuclear magnetic resonance, nano-fabrication, biosciences and bioengineering – genomics and -proteomics – and supercomputing.

“These [core support laboratories] are by far the most sophisticated facilities in the world”

John Larson, chief information officer, Kaust

HOK worked closely with researchers and research centre directors on devising the appropriate laboratory designs, a process that is ongoing. “We held discussions about where the individual researchers would fit into adjacent neighbourhoods and different floors, so there could be more of a synergy between researchers,” says Odell.

The ultimate test of how well these buildings are suited to their function is in their -ability to attract the best scientists from around the world.

“One of the main reasons Kaust has been successful so far is that it has attracted very well qualified researchers and has been able to accommodate all of their needs,” says Odell. “There has been no case where we have had to say we cannot accommodate that lab or pilot plant.”

One of the huge attractions for the scientists is core support laboratories – laboratory equipment such as nano-fabrication facilities and electron microscopes that all of the scientists can use. “These are by far the most sophisticated facilities in the world,” says Odell. “One of the scanning electron microscopes is the best available.”

The university’s focus on technology goes well beyond bricks and mortar. Given Kaust’s mission to collaborate extensively with international research partners and companies, users need access to high-speed communications channels.

Additional capacity

Kaust’s advanced IT infrastructure includes wireless and wired internet and network connectivity throughout the campus, with a 40Gbps backbone and multiple 10Gbps connections between campus buildings. Unused fibe-optic cables are ready to be activated when needed. All of the university’s communications technology, from telecoms to high-speed switching facilities, has been provided by the US’ Cisco Systems.

Via a 10Gbps submarine fibre-optic cable, researchers at Kaust will be connected to the two largest high-speed international research networks – Internet2 in the US and Geant2, the high-bandwidth academic internet serving Europe’s research and education community. That link, the only one from Saudi Arabia to Europe, will be shared with Kaust partners.

When research partners move to Kaust and start building facilities in the adjacent research park, they will be able to link into the same network

Kaust’s communications technology has almost as much switching capacity on campus as the entire Saudi Telecommunications Corporation. This surfeit of capacity is designed to enable the university to manage and maintain the amount of bandwidth it needs.

The need to get the communications right was critical to the entire mission, says John Larson, chief information officer in Kaust’s IT department.

“A lot of our partners are situated around the world and are in different time zones,” he says. “It is important, therefore, that professors and researchers located at home or in the office or in a classroom get quick and easy access to information and exchange it with these partners around the world.”

Some classes, for example, are taught remotely from universities thousands of kilometres away, such as the University of California in Berkeley, US. Kaust will also serve as the hub of the Saudi Arabian Advanced Research & Education Network (Saren). This will allow research institutions across this kingdom to collaborate using the computing facilities at Kaust. “It doesn’t matter where students or researchers are on campus, they will have high-speed communications access enabling them to watch lectures on video links, to interact and exchange data for further research,” says Larson.

As Kaust evolves, the amount of data it will need to handle will increase exponentially. This is unlikely to prove an obstacle, says Larson since, from the start, the design has provided an infrastructure it can grow into.

“We are currently utilising less than 1 per cent of the fibre-optic cable capacity installed in the campus,” says Larson.

“It was very much designed around the fact that the type of research we are focusing on is very data-processing intensive and, if we didn’t plan for the future, we would find ourselves digging trenches and putting in new cables in a short period of time.”

One of the main attractions of Kaust to scientists and researchers is Shaheen, one of the world’s most powerful high-performance computing systems, which was recently transferred to its permanent home inside the data centre at the Kaust campus from IBM’s TJ Watson Research Laboratory in New York.

This is the first time the US government has granted an export licence for a US-made supercomputer with remote access for researchers.

“They have given our global development partners and researchers around the world the ability, within certain restrictions, to use Shaheen to do their research,” says Larson.

Supercomputing

Shaheen is now ranked the second-fastest computer outside Europe and the fastest in all of Asia. The 16-rack IBM Blue Gene/P system has 65,600 independent processing cores and is capable of performing at a processing power of 220 teraflops (trillion floating points a second).

Kaust has plans to introduce a machine with petaflop capabilities – one thousand trillion points a second – in two years’ time and aims to eventually install an ‘exascale’ system, which will be 1,000 times faster than computers with petaflop capabilities.

With this kind of power available to it, technology will remain central to Kaust’s long-term vision, from the sustainable design of its buildings and facilities to the supercharged communications channels that bring Berkeley professors and Jeddah graduates together twice a week.