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September 23, 2005

HPC and Penguins: An HPCwire Q&A

Nicole Hemsoth

What do high performance computing and penguins have in common — aside from that omnipresent Linux mascot? Well, DreamWorks Animation’s chief technology officer Ed Leonard and Suzy Tichenor, vice president of the Council on Competitiveness, can answer that question — and a few more.

Both organizations recently collaborated to produce a lively video that aims to introduce “everyday folks” to the impact HPC is having on their lives. It certainly helps to have the penguin brigade from DreamWorks’ movie “Madagascar” to lead the way through the spirited romp. The DVD explores the importance of HPC for competitiveness and the need to continue attracting “the best and the brightest” for careers in HPC.

HPCwire: What was the genesis of this collaboration between the Council on Competitiveness and DreamWorks Animation?

Tichenor: At a recent meeting of our HPC project Advisory Committee [of which Leonard is a member], members shared their common concern that government policymakers and senior business executives, along with educators, students and the general public, really don’t understand how much HPC benefits our everyday lives and drives innovation throughout our economy.

This has made it more challenging to justify much-needed investments in the development and application of high performance computing, as well as related educational curricula. It’s also tough to attract people into careers that require knowledge of this technology. Our research has shown that industry is not using HPC as aggressively as it could and there is a shortage of people with HPC expertise. And without more effective use of this technology across the public and private sectors, the U.S. will have a difficult time meeting its national security requirements and maintaining a leadership position in the global marketplace.

The committee members brainstormed different ways to get the HPC story out more effectively and decided on a short video that showcases applications everyone can relate to. Then they contributed their ideas and unique simulations. Ed graciously offered the talent and expertise of DreamWorks Animation to help knit the story together in a visually compelling way.

HPCwire: How serious is the shortage of human expertise in HPC?

Tichenor: The shortage is very serious. The Council initiated a survey last year to probe the linkages between HPC and industrial competitiveness. The respondents, who were senior-level industry executives that use this technology, said the number one reason they weren’t using it as much as they should was that they couldn’t find enough people with relevant HPC expertise, either inside or outside their companies. This issue cropped up again in our recent HPC Application Software Workshop, where individual users, universities, national labs and ISVs concurred that there is a shortage of expertise for developing much-needed HPC application software.

HPCwire: The Council has been involved in HPC for years. Ed, why did DreamWorks get involved with the Council’s HPC Initiative and with this video?

Leonard: I joined the Council’s HPC project Advisory Committee, which Suzy directs, because we’re heavy users of advanced computational tools. Many people are surprised when they learn just how important this technology has become to the creation of our films. Technical innovation is a key enabler of competitive leadership for DreamWorks Animation. Like many other members of the Advisory Committee, we can’t do our jobs and compete effectively without serious computational power and without staying at the forefront of HPC innovation.

The HPC committee includes an interesting mix of leading public and private sector users, hardware and software vendors, government funders and other key constituencies of the HPC community. Participation gives us a tremendous opportunity to share our experiences with HPC and learn from others who are advancing the application of HPC in other areas. Another important part of the committee’s charter is educating people about the need to maintain U.S. leadership in science and technology, and the related need to promote math and science education.

We thought the idea of a fun and entertaining video using some of our characters would be a great tool for introducing people to the application and importance of HPC, which is why we agreed with Suzy and other members of the Advisory Committee to launch this effort. All of our organizations wanted it to be both informative and entertaining. We explored which CG characters might work best to make the material more accessible and appealing, and we ultimately decided on the penguins from “Madagascar,” which provided both a general appeal from audiences that loved the movie as well as the tech appeal because of the connection between penguins and Linux.

HPCwire: How important is HPC for DreamWorks Animation’s business?

Leonard: First and foremost, we are storytellers. Our method for telling our stories is computer graphics. Our ultimate goal is telling great stories with state-of-the-art visuals. If you look back at the top-grossing films of the past 20 years, almost all of them had state-of-the art visuals and technical effects. This takes a lot of computational power and sophisticated software, and HPC is a key enabler for making this all come to life for our films. It’s also a key differentiator as audiences’ expectations continually rise. People definitely know the difference between super high quality films from companies like DreamWorks Animation or Pixar and films from other companies.

The movie industry is one of America’s great and unique industries and, today, HPC is giving us a tremendous competitive advantage. It allows us to create great animated films, and also to create and maintain high-value jobs here in the U.S. Today, this is a powerful combination that is permitting us to compete effectively in the global marketplace against other countries that have much lower labor costs.

HPCwire: What kinds of technical and HPC talent do you look for?

Leonard: Our business is very unique in the sense of combining the very best artistic talent with the very best engineering talent and the best technical tools. Amazing things can happen when you take left- and right-brain thinkers, artistic and computer/engineering talent, and put them together in one place with one shared goal — making a great animated film. Ultimately, we hire from lots of sources: directly from universities, from the national labs, from aerospace companies, from other research facilities and as well as from other entertainment companies.

HPCwire: Do you have problems getting the talent that you need?

Leonard: It’s a continual challenge to get the right people and the right mix of skills. HPC means something different to just about every HPC user. Our problems are different from the typical problems in national labs and require a different way of thinking. We need artists who can think like engineers, and engineers who can think like artists.

The people we hire need to be able to work in this integrated, collaborative environment we’ve built at DreamWorks Animation. They need to understand that the whole reason we care about HPC is to help create things that look great on the screen. For a film like “Madagascar,” there were extraordinary HPC challenges to conquer, such as the scenes with crowds of furry lemurs dancing in the lush jungles. It’s hard to do fur and it’s hard to do crowds and it’s really hard to do furry crowds. Then you have dancing crowds in the jungle – a challenge that required the amazing talents of dozens of artists and engineers working in close collaboration. Ultimately, CG filmmaking is a true team endeavor — a very collaborative process.

HPCwire: What’s the message of this video?

Tichenor: The key message is that HPC significantly enhances our daily lives by driving the innovation behind many of the products and services we rely on but take for granted, such as accurate weather forecasts, safer cars and planes, reliable supplies of energy for our vehicles and homes, new and better medicines and treatments, lower-cost, higher-quality consumer products, and of course, terrific animated movies.

Council members strongly believe that the U.S. must evolve into an innovation-based economy if we are going to remain globally competitive. In order to do this, HPC needs to be an integral component of the nation’s innovation infrastructure. There’s a rising tide of innovation outside the U.S., and we can’t sustain our leadership by doing things the way we’ve done them before. We need to expand our usage of HPC and this will require a larger pool of talent, both to develop innovative hardware and software and to use these resources to solve the complex problems that are key to our national security and industrial strength.

HPCwire: People have criticized the HPC industry for not knowing how to explain itself to “everyday folks.” How do you communicate the excitement and purpose of HPC?

Leonard: Many people think HPC is something to be feared, but it’s easy for people to love and relate to the characters that we create in our movies. In the new video, we use that fact to educate people about HPC. People are generally very interested in how technology is used to create our characters. Using our characters, we can create the appeal and interest to introduce and educate people on how HPC is central to our business, as well as to many other leading companies across just about every industry.

HPCwire: Have you shown this video to any non-HPC types yet, perhaps other business executives or students and educators? What did they think?

Leonard: I just showed it to students at Colorado State University during a conference keynote I was giving there. People loved the video and asked lots of questions. It created a basic level of understanding and piqued the interest of many students who didn’t know the important role HPC is playing across many industries. Part of our goal at DreamWorks Animation is to reach out to the broader community in hopes of teaching, sharing and otherwise motivating the next generation of artists and engineers. The video was a definite hit with this group.

HPCwire: Is this a one-time collaboration or does the Council have ongoing plans for promoting the importance of HPC and careers in HPC?

Tichenor: The Council’s HPC project is an ongoing effort whose objective is to understand where HPC can be used to accelerate the innovation process, the barriers preventing this from happening, and ways to remove these barriers. We hold national conferences and workshops that bring together the public and private sector to discuss these challenges. We also conduct user surveys to better understand the linkages between HPC and competitiveness. This video is our most recent activity. We also conduct educational forums for Congress and Congressional staff on technology topics of interest. The Council members include corporate CEOs, presidents of universities and heads of labor organizations. This gives us a powerful platform for reaching out to substantial segments of the public.

HPCwire: What about DreamWorks? The movie business is obsessed with sequels, so was this a worthwhile venture you might consider repeating?

Leonard: Absolutely. We’re keenly interested in the Council on Competitiveness in general, and very interested in this kind of educational outreach. I’m also personally interested in making the importance of math and science more visible, especially as it relates to kids. Fewer people today are being drawn into these fields and there are fewer high-quality educational programs. For the U.S. to maintain its leadership in an increasingly competitive world market, we have to continue to produce the best scientists and engineers, and produce them in sufficient quantity. Otherwise, we’re going to lose this leadership, and there’s too much at stake.  We will continue to look for opportunities to use what we do best to generate more interest in science and technology.

HPCwire: How can people get copies of the video?

Tichenor: Just go to our Web site (www.compete.org) and click on the image of the penguins on the home page. This leads to instructions on how to obtain copies of the DVD.

HPCwire: How do you expect the video to be used?

Tichenor: This video is designed to be shown to any person or group that wants or needs to acquire a basic understanding of HPC: from the highest levels of business, academia and government to elementary school children to private sector investors and government funders — even family members and other long- suffering relatives of all of us who work in HPC. Our Advisory Committee members are already showing it at professional and academic conferences where they are speaking, and within their own organizations to educate executives and other colleagues. It’s a wonderful tool to help get students excited about studying math, science and engineering, because they can see a wide variety of ways for using those skill sets.

HPCwire: What’s coming up from the Council that our readers can look forward to?

Tichenor: We’re in the final stages of writing the reports from our July 2005 Users Conference and the follow-on HPC Application Software Workshop. These should be out soon. I think people will find those results interesting. We’re also co-sponsoring a BOF with the Ohio Supercomputer Center at SC2005 called “The Evaporation of the Application Software Market.” The BOF will take place at 5:15 on Wednesday [Nov. 16] and will discuss the increasing difficulty of obtaining production-quality HPC application software. We’ll have a strong panel of speakers, including senior officials from Oak Ridge National Lab, Fluent, MSC Software, Goodyear and Proctor & Gamble.

Our next educational forum for Congress will be on Sept. 29. It will focus on HPC’s importance for innovation and competitiveness. We offer these “Breakfast Bytes” sessions in conjunction with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in cooperation with the House IT Roundtable chaired by congressman Lloyd Doggett and congresswoman Judy Biggert.