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ISC-funded Grant: Secure TLS Connections in {nanonext} and {mirai} Facilitating High-Performance Computing in the Life Sciences

By March 12, 2024Blog

Contributed by Charlie Gao, Director at Hibiki AI Limited

{nanonext} is an R binding to the state of the art C messaging library NNG (Nanomsg Next Generation), created as a successor to ZeroMQ. It was originally developed as  a fast and reliable messaging interface for use in machine learning pipelines. With implementations readily available in languages including C++, Go, Python, and Rust, it allowed individual modules to be written in the most appropriate language and for them to be piped together in a single workflow.

{mirai} is a package that enables asynchronous evaluation in R, built on top of {nanonext}. It was  initially created purely as a demonstration of the reliable RPC (remote procedure call) protocol from {nanonext}. However, open-sourcing this project greatly facilitated its discovery and dissemination, eventually leading to a long-term, cross-industry collaboration with Will Landau, a statistician in the life sciences industry, author of the {targets} package for reproducible pipelines. He ended up creating the {crew} package to extend {mirai} to handle the increasingly complex and demanding high-performance computing needs faced by his users.

As this work was progressing, security was still a missing piece of the puzzle. The NNG library supported integration with Mbed TLS (a SSL/TLS library developed under the Trusted Firmware Project), however secure connections were not yet a part of the R landscape.

The R Consortium, by way of an Infrastructure Steering Committee (ISC) grant, funded the work to implement this functionality from the underlying libraries and to also devise a means of configuring the required certificates in R. The stated intention was to provide a user-friendly interface for doing so. The end result somewhat exceeded these goals, with the default allowing for zero-configuration, single-use certificates to be generated on-the-fly. This affords an unparalleled level of usability, not requiring end users to have any knowledge of the intricacies of TLS.

Will Landau talks about the impact TLS has had on his work:

“I sought to extend {mirai} to a wide variety of computing environments through {crew}, from traditional clusters to Amazon Web Services. The integration of TLS into {nanonext} increases the confidence with which {mirai} can be deployed in these powerful environments, accelerating downstream applications and {targets} pipelines.”

The project to extend {mirai} to high-performance computing environments was featured in a workshop on simulation workflows in the life sciences, given at R/Pharma in October 2023 (video and materials accessible from

With the seed planted in {nanonext}, {mirai} and {crew} have grown to form an elegant and performant foundation for an emerging landscape of asynchronous and parallel programming tools. They already provide new back-ends for {parallel}, {promises}, {plumber}, {targets}, and Shiny, as well as high-level interfaces such as {crew.cluster} for traditional clusters and {} for the cloud.

Charlie Gao, Director at Hibiki AI Limited