Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Secrets, lies, women and money: the definitive summary of SC16 - Part 2

I'm usually not shy of speaking my opinions (if you read Part 1 of my summary of SC16, then you’ll know that marketing departments through the land of HPC are busy taking my name off their Christmas card lists 😀), but this Part 2 blog is probably sticking my neck out even further than normal, with some potentially uncomfortable opinions.

SC is arguably the main event of the year for the HPC/supercomputing community. And so it becomes an annual cauldron, relentlessly bubbling to the surface those issues that are most topical for the HPC world. In 2016, two of those issues were women and money.


2016 was the year, I think, that the theme of diversity in the HPC workforce broke forth to be acknowledged as a fundamental issue that affects HPC. Isolated appeals have been trying to raise the diversity failure and opportunity for several years. But it was only in 2016 that the efforts of a persistent few gained momentum, brought focus, and dragged the issue into the center of the HPC community's self-awareness. And, equally importantly, a sufficient proportion of the HPC community was finally willing to see the glaringly obvious and maybe even do something about it.

In essence, the issue is simple: the HPC workforce - from new entrants to leaders - is numerically dominated by white men. Yep, that includes me too. And the leadership roles are dominated by older white men. (I don't think I'm "older" yet - although I guess that is relative.)

So what?

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Secrets, lies, women and money: the definitive summary of SC16 - Part 1

Just over a week ago 11,000 people were making their way home from the biggest supercomputing event of the year – SC16 in Salt Lake City. With so much going on at SC, even those who were there in person likely still missed a huge proportion of what happened. It’s simply too busy to keep up with all the news during the week, too many events/talks/meetings happening in parallel, and much of the interesting stuff only gets talked about behind closed doors or through informal networking.

There were even a couple of top-notch tutorials on HPC acquisition and TCO/funding models :-)

Amongst this productive chaos, I was flattered to be told several times at during SC that people find my blogs worth reading and commented they hadn’t seen any recently. I guess the subtext was “it’s about time I wrote some more”. So, I’ll make an effort to blog more often again. Starting with my thoughts on SC16 itself.

As ever, while I do soften the occasional punch in my writing (not usually in person though), there remains the possibility that some readers won’t like some of my opinions, and there’s always the risk of me straying into controversy in places.

I've got four topics to cover: secrets, lies, women and money.


It came out in several conversations during the week. “What has been your highlight so far?” “What’s the most grabbing announcement you’ve heard this week?” “What’s the big story of the show?”.

Sadly, my answer was mostly “meh – nothing really”. Many people I spoke to agreed, SC16 was lacking in “big” news. There was lots of “news” but there wasn’t much beyond business as usual, evolutionary announcements, or re-announcing of products that had already been talked about for a long time, etc. There were some desperate attempts by marketing departments to say otherwise (see “Lies” below) but overall SC16 was a calm news week. (My media friends have probably just hit the screen at the word “calm” – I hear they get a bit flooded in the run up to each SC/ISC.)

However, away from the public news, in the off-the-record chats that happen as friends bump into each other when moving around the SC16 campus, and in the many networking receptions, and in private meetings held under NDA, there was plenty of news. Re-read the previous sentence to see why I’m not going to reveal most of these snippets. But I will hint at some.

Friday, 15 April 2016

HPC babble

Two things:
  1. I seem to have written a lot of stuff on HPC over the years (probably mostly waffle, nonsense and wildly wrong predictions).
  2. Here is a list of most of it: http://www.hpcnotes.com/p/interviews-quotes-articles.html.

Monday, 9 November 2015

SC15 Preview

SC15 - the biggest get-together of the High Performance Computing (HPC) world - takes place next week in Austin, TX. Around 10,000 buyers, users, programmers, managers, business development people, funders, researchers, media, etc. will be there.

With a large technical program, an even larger exhibition, and plenty of associated workshops, product launches, user groups, etc., SC15 will dominate the world of HPC for a week, plus most of this week leading up to it. It is one of the best ways for HPC practitioners to share experiences, learn about the latest advances, and build collaborations and business relationships.

So, to wet your appetites, here is the @hpcnotes preview to SC15 - what I think might be the key topics, things to look out for, what not to miss, etc.

New supercomputers

It's always one of the aspects of SC that grabs the media and attendee attention the most. Which new biggest supercomputers will be announced? Will there be a new occupier of the No.1 spot on the Top500 list? Usually I have some idea of what new supercomputers are coming up before they are public, but this year I have no idea. My guess? No new No.1. A few new Top20 machines. So which one will win the news coverage?

New products

In spite of the community repeatedly acknowledging that the whole system is important - memory, interconnect, I/O, software, architecture, packaging, etc., judging by the media attention and informal conversations, we still seem to get most excited by the processors.

Monday, 5 October 2015

HPC Bingo

A big part of SC (Austin in 2015) is actually getting there. Most attendees will have to navigate the joys of long distance air travel. If you travel enough, or play the game wisely, you can secure frequent flyer elite status which helps make the air travel more bearable. Here is a version of elite status bingo for HPC. I listed some categories and "achievements" required for each. Can you claim elite HPC status?

HPC System User category

There have been lots of systems in HPC over the years, but we should stick to options that even a recent recruit to HPC might be able to claim. You can award yourself this category if you have used (logged into and run or compiled code) each of these systems:
  • IBM Power system
  • Cray XT, XE, or XC
  • SGI shared memory system - Origin, Altix or UV
  • x86 cluster
  • A system with any one of Sparc, vector, or ARM, GPU, Phi, or FPGA

HPC Programmer category

Award yourself this category if you have written programs to run on a HPC system in each of these:
  • Fortran 77
  • Fortran 90 or later
  • C
  • MPI
  • OpenMP
  • Any one of CUDA, OpenACC, OpenCL, Python, R, Matlab

HPC Talker/Buzzword category

Buzzwords seem to be an integral part of HPC. To be awarded this category, you must have used each of these in talks (powerpoint etc.) since SC14:
  • Big Data
  • Any of green computing, energy efficient computing, or power aware computing
  • One of my HPC analogies?
  • "it's all about the science" (but then just talked about the HPC like everyone else!!)
  •  Any reference to "FLOPS are free, data movement is hard" or similar
  • Exascale

Previous SC content ...

I'll write some new content for SC15 Austin soon but while you are waiting, here are two of my previous writings on SC:

Essential Analogies for the HPC Advocate

This is an update of a two-part article I wrote for HPC Wire in 2013: Part 1 and Part 2.

An important ability for anyone involved in High Performance Computing (HPC or supercomputing or big data processing, etc.) is to be able to explain just what HPC is to others.

"Others” include politicians, Joe Public, graduates possibly interested in HPC, industry managers trying to see how HPC fits into their IT or R&D programs, or family asking for the umpteenth time “what exactly do you do?

One of the easiest ways to explain HPC is to use analogies that relate the concepts to things that the listener is more familiar with. So here is a run-through of some useful analogies for explaining HPC or one of its concepts:

The simple yet powerful: A spade

Need to dig a hole? Use the right tool for the job – a spade. Need to dig a bigger hole, or a hole through tougher material like concrete? Use a more powerful tool – a mechanical digger.

Now instead of digging a hole, consider modeling and simulation. If the model/simulation is too big or too complex – use the more powerful tool: i.e. HPC. It’s nice and simple – HPC is a more powerful tool that can tackle more complex or bigger models/simulations than ordinary computers.

There are some great derived analogies too. You should be able to give a spade to almost anyone and they should be able to dig a hole without too much further instruction. But, hand a novice the keys to a mechanical digger, and it is unlikely they will be able to effectively operate the machine without either training or a lot of on the job learning. Likewise, HPC requires training to be able to use the more powerful tool effectively. Buying mechanical diggers is also requires expertise that buying a spade doesn’t. And so on.

It neatly focuses on the purpose and benefit of HPC rather than the technology itself. If you’ve heard any of my talks recently you will know this is an HPC analogy that I use myself frequently.

The moral high ground: A science/engineering instrument

I’ve occasionally accused the HPC community of being riddled with hypocrites – we make a show of “the science is what matters” and then proceed to focus the rest of the discussion on the hardware (and, if feeling pious or guilty, we mention “but software really matters”).

However, there is a critical truth to this – the scientific (or engineering) capability is what matters when considering HPC. I regularly use this perspective, often very firmly, myself: a supercomputer is NOT a computer – it is a major scientific instrument that just happens to be built using computer technology. Just because it is built from most of the same components as commodity servers does not mean that modes of usage, operating skills, user expectations, etc. should be the same. This helps to put HPC into the right context in the listeners mind – compare it to a major telescope, a wind tunnel, or even LHC@CERN.

The derived analogies are effective too – expertise in the technology itself is required, not just the science using the instrument. Sure, the skills overlap but they are distinct and equally important.

This analogy focuses on the purpose and benefit of HPC, but also includes a reference to it being based on a big computer.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The price of open-source software - a joint response

This viewpoint is published jointly on software.ac.uk, hpcnotes.com (personal blog), danielskatzblog.wordpress.com (personal blog) under a CC-BY licence. It was written by Neil Chue Hong (Software Sustainability Institute), Simon Hettrick (Software Sustainability Institute), Andrew Jones (@hpcnotes & NAG), and Daniel S. Katz (University of Chicago & Argonne National Laboratory)

In their recent paper, Krylov et al. [1] state that the goal of the research community is to advance “what is good for scientific discovery.” We wholeheartedly agree. We also welcome the debate on the role of open source in research, begun by Gezelter [2], in which Krylov was participating. However, we have several concerns with Krylov’s arguments and reasoning on the best way to advance scientific discovery with respect to research software.

Gezelter raises the question of whether it should be standard practice for software developed by publicly funded researchers to be released under an open-source licence. Krylov responds that research software should be developed by professional software developers and sold to researchers.

We advocate that software developed with public funds should be released as open-source by default (supporting Gezelter’s position). However, we also support Krylov’s call for the involvement of professional software developers where appropriate, and support Krylov’s argument that researchers should be encouraged to use existing software where possible. We acknowledge many of Krylov’s arguments of the benefits of professionally written and supported software.

Our first major concern with Krylov’s paper is its focus on arguing against an open-source mandate on software developed by publicly funded researchers. To the knowledge of the authors, no such mandate exists. It appears that Krylov is pre-emptively arguing against the establishment of such a mandate, or even against it becoming “standard practice” in academia. There is a significant difference between a recommendation of releasing as open-source by default (which we firmly support) and a mandate that all research software must be open source (which we don’t support, because it hinders the flexibility that scientific discovery needs).

Our second major concern is Krylov’s assumption that the research community could rely entirely on software purchased from professional software developers. We agree with this approach whenever it is feasible. However, by concentrating on large-scale quantum chemistry software, Krylov overlooks the diversity of software used in research. A significant amount of research software is at a smaller scale: from few line scripts to short programs. Although it is of fundamental importance to research, this small-scale software is typically used by only a handful of researchers. There are many benefits in employing professionals to develop research software but, since so much research software is not commercially viable, the vast majority of it will continue to be developed by researchers for their own use. We do advocate researchers engaging with professional software developers as far as appropriate when developing their own software.

Our desire is to maximise the benefit of software by making it open—allowing researchers other than the developers to read, understand, modify, and use it in their own research—by default. This does not preclude commercial licensing where it both is feasible and is the best way of maximising the software benefit. We believe this is also the central message of Gezelter.

In addition to these two fundamental issues with Krylov, we would like to respond to some of the individual points raised.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Secrets of the Supercomputers

These are revelations from inside the strange world of supercomputing centers. Nobody is pretending these are real stories. They couldn’t possibly be. Could they?

On one of my many long haul airplane plane journeys this year, I caught myself thinking about the strange things that go on inside supercomputer centers - and other parts of the HPC world. I thought it might be fun to poke at and mock such activities while trying to make some serious points.

Since the flight was a long one, I started writing ... and so "Secrets of the Supercomputers" was born.

You can find Episode 1 at HPC Wire today, touching on the topic of HPC procurement.

No offense to anyone intended. Gentle mocking maybe. Serious lessons definitely.

Take a look here for some serious comments on HPC procurement at the NAG blog.