November 9, 2013

Beowulf Community Comes Together at SC13

Jeff Layton

A Personal Take on the Big Event…

When I first started in HPC I used the classic supercomputers such as the CDC 6600, the Cyber 205, and the ETA-10. Fortunately the university I attended gave me free access to these systems as long as I didn’t abuse the resources.

My research needed to use these resources more and more and when I became a faculty member in 1992 at a small university I no longer had access to resources of this caliber. But my research was getting more complex and the problems were getting larger so I started looking for other ways to ways to continue my research.

I started with some basic parallel programming on some Sun workstations (Solaris) using PVM so I could solve larger problems. At that time I started using Linux and was reading about Don Becker and Tom Sterling’s Beowulf work. A new faculty member moved in next door to me, and he and I started talking about cluster computing, particularly Beowulf.

We loved the ideas and community that surrounded Linux, specifically Beowulf systems. We could inexpensively build and tune our own parallel computers. We started researching how to build one and, using my friends’ start-up money, built one. The Beowulf community was quickly growing and was amazingly friendly and helpful. Lots of experimentation and lots of idea exchange. It was kind of like a frat party for geeks (this is my wife’s analogy, not mine).

I left the academic life and moved into the aerospace industry, where I became a code developer and then a system administrator. I brought Beowulf systems to my company and started making friends in the Beowulf community. This is how Doug Eadline and I became friends. It was a great time because Beowulf systems (clusters) were surging very rapidly. Lots of cool things were happening and there was a wonderful exchange of ideas and patches and code. The Beowulf mailing list was formed and lots of people offered help with suggestions and code. It really was a wonderful time and the Beowulf mailing list was at the center of cluster universe. This was also the time when clusters were starting to appear on the Top500 (and soon to dominate that list).

I remember going to my first Linux conference and being awe-struck by the talent, but I was especially taken by the people involved with Beowulf. This was still the beanbag generation with lots of Beowulf hackers sitting in booths with laptops,  writing code. Then I went to my first SuperComputing (SC) conference in 2004 in Pittsburgh and met even more cool people. What struck me the most from these conferences was that lots of people had very similar interests to mine and really enjoyed exchanging ideas. They were very approachable — you could go up and introduce yourself and start talking to them. The person who intimidated me the most was Andreas Dilger of ext4 and Lustre fame, but he is truly one of the nicest people you could meet.

As Beowulf systems grew and became more popular the community grew and SC became very heavily focused on clusters. There were corporate parties where you had to score a coveted invitation for entrance. Business became a common conversation on the show floor. While this is all wonderful, I was still looking for an event where I didn’t have to beg an invitation and where I could talk to people who had very similar interests and with whom I corresponded on the Beowulf mailing list. The Beowulf Bash scratched my itch. Here was an open party where anyone could come and interact. The sponsors are companies whose employees participate on the Beowulf list and they do it because of their support for the Beowulf community.

I’ve gone to a number of BeoBash events and what amazes me is that at every single one I meet someone I haven’t met before but whose posts I’ve read and admired. I remember first seeing and meeting Dr. Walt Ligon from Clemson who was working on a parallel file system, PVFS, that I was using. It as at a BeoBash that I also discovered that Walt is an amazing guitarist. At other BeoBash events I remember meeting Hank Dietz, Robert Brown, Rob Ross, Dan Stanzione, Greg Lindahl, Don Becker, Brian Haymore, Greg Kurtzer, Bernard Li, Roger Smith, and Glen Otero, to name just a few. It was amazing to be able to talk to these people and exchange ideas (at least early in the evening — by late evening I wasn’t able to think as clearly).

In the last few years I’ve gotten re-energized by watching the number of younger people and students who come to the BeoBash. They love to talk about new ideas and new technologies around Beowulf clusters. They argue about which way is the best way to do things and most of them are grimly determined that their way is the only way (Doug Eadline and I have never been this opinionated). Instead of a room surrounded my middle-aged white men with finger food, I was surrounded by a wonderful range of really passionate, vibrant people who were tons of fun to talk to (even though I fit into the category of a middle aged white guy). I even took an informal poll at my new job and everyone rated the BeoBash as the best party at SC.

In my opinion, the BeoBash has become the best part of SC. You learn a great deal on the expo floor but you can learn so much more at the BeoBash. I’ve gotten old enough that I like to walk up to groups of younger people and just start asking questions. At first it makes them uncomfortable as hell but soon their passion, their excitement, their unique opinions come out and I thoroughly enjoy it. Of course the really interesting thing is that when I see them later I like to ask if they remember me. So far the poll is about 50/50 but I’m not offended — I blame the beer.

This year’s BeoBash should be better than ever. Lara and the Xand Marketing team have been working their fingers to the bone as usual. Doug is preparing his devious plans, which I hear include Schweddy Balls this year, but we’ll all have to find out.

“Same people, better food, more beer“…

Jeff Layton is the Senior Product Manager for Intel Lustre, a Beowulf Devotee, and a slave to fashion. He can be found lounging around at a nearby Frys enjoying the coffee and waiting for sales (but never during working hours).