Friday 19 August 2011

What is this HPC thing?

[Originally posted on The NAG Blog]

I’m sure something like this is familiar to many readers of this blog. The focus here is HPC, but there is a similar story for mathematicians, numerical software engineeers, etc.

You've just met an old acquaintance. Or a family member is curious. Or at social events (when social means talking to real people not twitter/facebook). We see that question coming. We panic. Then the family/friend/stranger, asks it. We freeze. How to reply? Can I get a meaningful, ideally interesting, answer out before they get bored? What if I fail to get the message across correctly? Oops, this pause before answering has gone on too long. Now they are looking at me strangely. They are thinking the answer is embarrassing or weird. This is not a good start.

The question? “What do you do then?” Followed by: “Oh! So what exactly is supercomputing then?

The problem is that it usually takes a several slides or a few minutes of explanation to give a decent overview to a scientist who is new to HPC. Your questioner is almost certainly not a scientist, and maybe even thinks using email, facebook or twitter is a big computing achievement.

So, where do you start? The big computer? The science it enables? The money involved? You want to quickly convey the scale, the enormous range of user disciplines, the specialist nature, the benefits to everyday life. You want to distinguish it from laptops, tablet computers, and corporate servers. You want to avoid mentioning nuclear weapons labs. You’d even like to come across as cool, but it’s way too late for that.

It’s a question that I have seen leaders in the field of HPC struggle to answer effectively - either talking rubbish, stalling, or starting a monologue on computer science theory.
But really, especially in the current tough funding climate, it is something we should all learn to answer properly. Be able to explain quickly, simply – and relevantly – what HPC is all about. Make it sound the interesting, high paced, leading edge field that it is.

Why can’t HPC have the same positive media grab that particle physics and astronomy have? If the mass media feel they can talk about particle physics, radio telescopes, space telescopes, or sun storms,
then we should be able to make supercomputing amenable to the same audience.

We know that many areas of research and industry can benefit hugely from High Performance Computing. And so it is important to the economy and society to have a strong HPC future. But for a strong future, HPC needs millions of HPC-aware students and public – maybe more than it needs thousands of extra HPC skilled programmers. The latter will follow naturally if the former is done well. It is more essential to ensure the benefits of HPC are recognised by end user organisations for future generations.

So, next time you are asked by family or strangers what you do, avoid the pause followed by a shy “computer stuff” – instead answer “supercomputing” and then quickly explain what that is and why it matters.

And, if you can get the message across positively to family and strangers, then as well as the long term benefits above, you will find you have the skills to get it across positively to your funders, politicians, senior managers, board, etc. when the situation arises.

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