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June 17, 2014

Secrets of the Supercomputers

Andrew Jones
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The man pacing the edge of the meeting room was increasingly convinced that at least one, and possibly most, of his colleagues were borderline idiots. He tried again to bring perspective to their latest argument: “So, just to summarize, we’ve spent two hours arguing about only the first page of each bid, have spent less than five minutes passing a few cursory glances through the rest of the hundreds of pages in the oversized bundles the other bidders have dumped on us, and yet we are ruling out this bid because it is only eight pages long in total?”

It had started at noon. Well, no it actually started over a year ago. Typical saga of trying to spend money on anything larger than a pencil in a university environment. But the current meeting, bringing that year to a climax, had only started at noon. At least they had eaten. Although the standard university catering meant not-quite-but-nearly stale “something paste” sandwiches, fruit that had obviously been used as footballs, warm orange juice and half as many cakes as there were attendees.

This was the day that the five members of the CARROT Supercomputer Procurement Project Final Evaluation Team had been both looking forward to and dreading at the same time. The team name changed every time they met because no one knew what the real name was, and the origins of the CARROT acronym had long ago vaporized, but it at least the team title was long enough to sound important.

It was time to open the bids for the supercomputer procurement. The formal request for proposals (RFP) process of the last two months had just closed at noon that day. Parcels containing the bids had arrived by courier or hand delivery all morning. They were now sat in a pile on the table waiting to be opened, carefully read and scored to reveal the winner. Beside the six parcels were a stack of printed copies of the bid evaluation form. Following best practice in supercomputer procurement, this had been written at the same time as the RFP document, based on the desperate belief that comparing the bids against this form would automatically reveal the best bid and ensure a justified solution.

Well, maybe some of them still believed that, but at least two of them had more experience of how procurement evaluations turned out at the nasty end of the process. “Nasty” because the number of unhappy people was sure to be greater than the number of happy people after the end of the meeting.

The team started to tear open the parcels. Each parcel contained five copies of a vendor’s bid, as requested by the procurement process – one for each team member to read. Five bids were vigorous assaults on the rainforests. The vendors had clearly included every bit of information even obliquely relevant to the RFP questions, in the fear that leaving out some obscure detail might cost them the win. One vendor had probably also killed several laser printers in the process, as their bid parcel had needed a goods trolley to get it to the meeting room. The sixth bid was unusual – submitted by a newcomer to the market, it was a mere eight pages, with concise answers for each RFP question.

The team started reading. After a mere handful of minutes, Alfred (director of the hosting supercomputer center) leaned back in his chair and confidently declared that “Red Supercomputers Inc. is obviously the winner”.

What?” exploded the rest of the committee members, as they saw the careful procurement process dissolving into farce before their eyes.

They’ve bid the most cores” Alfred answered. “I’ve read the front page of each bid. Apart from Blue HPC Systems Inc. who didn’t write the number of cores on the first page and so I’ve just ignored them.

Bruce (applications team leader) argued back “but Red Inc. has only bid a quarter of the memory of the others – which explains why they can afford so many cores – but the system will be useless for real applications. Green Supers Inc. have offered a ton of memory though.

Charles (director of the partnering supercomputer center) joined in “Well the winner can’t be Green Supers because they have won the last four procurements I have been involved with and it will start to look like I’m favoring them. Even if it does look like they have bid the best system again.

And then Derek (senior, but role never quite clear) added to the mix with “Yellow HPC Products Inc. have used a silly font – but they have bid nearly as many cores as Red.

Edward (head of the systems group) pushed back from the table, waving the evaluation forms in panic “wait, we haven’t even started the evaluation forms yet.” He was new to this game. Alfred countered this with “we’ll use those forms later, to explain the decision we have made!” The room disintegrated into a cacophony of competing voices. As Edward tried in vain to thrust the evaluation forms under the pens of his colleagues, the path of the meeting had been twisted into a familiar tone that many of them recognized from previous procurements.

As the afternoon rolled on, minute after minute, following each argument circle after circle, the debate centered on Red’s biggest system for the budget vs. Green’s better balanced but smaller system. Bruce folded himself in a depressed heap in the corner, realizing his team would have to sort out the mess of getting users to approve of whatever was deployed and to help make their applications run on it. Edward simply looked on in horror as his (frankly unrealistic) expectations of a carefully planned and rationally conducted evaluation process floated away with the smell of long cold coffee.

Alfred, Charles & Derek soldiered on. Alfred used a calming voice to insert “whatever we buy, however, finely architected for a range of applications, the HPC media, the HPC community and the funding agencies will only look at how many cores or FLOPS we bought. So let’s make sure we get the most – or risk looking like we got a bad deal.

Bruce whimpered from the corner “and what about our users???

Charles said again, as he had already repeated several times that long afternoon, “I really think we should read the rest of Blue’s bid before we make any rash decisions – and consider the evaluation forms we put together.

Alfred shot back: “I’m not reading hundreds of pages of Blue’s proposal to find out what they have actually bid. If they won’t summarize it sharply up front then tough. But I’m not buying from Green either, because I’m not giving all this money to a bid of only eight pages, however good it is!

Derek paused his pacing at the edge of the meeting room and again to bring perspective to their latest argument: “So, just to summarize, we’ve spent two hours arguing about only the first page of each bid, have spent less than five minutes passing a few cursory glances through the rest of the hundreds of pages in the oversized bundles the other bidders have dumped on us, and yet we are ruling out the Green bid because it is only eight pages long in total?”

Derek collapsed back into his chair with a weary battle strained sigh. “I knew we should have got those independent consultants in to help us with this …

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?

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

To Be Continued….

[The serious footnote: buying HPC systems can be a complex task, balancing competing commercial, technical, political and practical drivers.]