November 11, 2005

Kramer Spearheads Impressive SC05 Showing

Nicole Hemsoth

William T.C. Kramer must be using his HPC prowess to somehow get 28 hours of each day. It's the only way to explain how he could maintain a schedule that includes chairing this year's Supercomputing extravaganza, while serving as deputy division director at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and pursuing his doctorate while also remaining a dutiful and doting husband and father.

It was not surprising that SC05 was first on his mind during a recent conversation from his NERSC office at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. After all, this year's conference and trade show is poised to be the biggest in recent years, measuring from many different aspects.

Perhaps most foremost, SC05 has sold out every available inch of allocated exhibit area. According to Kramer, some 220 exhibitors will be occupying “every space the fire marshal would allow us to sell.” The booths range in square footage from 10-by-10s to 50-by-50s.

“The industry as a whole is doing well,” said Kramer, reflecting on the reasons for the encouraging vendor support. “We're seeing more people and different people.” And not just on the vendor side. In particular, he added there has been lots of interest from government initiatives.

This interest has helped Kramer expand the focus of the conference, which should be particularly noticeable to habitual attendees. There is the biggest educational program ever, highlighted by the expected attendance of dozens and dozens of teachers from high schools and colleges. Much of this increase is thanks to additional funding. “There is a renewed energy regarding HPC,” said Kramer. “This relates also to how HPC is being applied in a multiple of new and existing areas of study.”

Attendance is running ahead of last year's pace. This is particularly interesting because it was only the late 1990s when support of SC was rumored to have peaked and whispers began questioning its relevancy. Hopefully, 2005 will let SC wipe off its Rodney Dangerfield tag altogether. After all, when the gala bounced back with 2002's showing in Baltimore, critics attributed its proximity to the nation's capital. The word went out the next year that there was little interest in Phoenix – and SC03 drew the biggest crowd ever. But the result only led to naysayers predicting a deep drop for Pittsburgh last year. The result: another attendance record.

This kind of pessimism doesn't seem to exist for Seattle's event. The No. 1 reason could be the opening keynote speaker that Kramer secured: a guy named Sir William H. Gates, Microsoft Corp's chairman and chief software architect.

Kramer admitted his masterstroke of scoring Gates as SC05's opening speaker represents two years of working various channels at Microsoft to get an audience with the man at the top. Once he did, then it still didn't end. Then there was crafting the rational for the HPC faithful as to why the software giant—not even considered a legitimate HPC player by many in the field — should score the cherished kickoff spot that has traditionally been the roost of non-vendor dignitaries.

After all, holding the event in proximity to Microsoft's Redmond, Wash. headquarters didn't hurt SC's chances. Yet Kramer acknowledged he did not reel in Gates without a Herculean effort from himself and others counted among the SC05 inner circle.

“Gates actually canceled a trip to China to be at SC,” Kramer said. “He's certainly interested in HPC. He's been getting briefed twice a week to get up to speed on all aspects. Obviously, this is a significant sign.”

One thing's for sure: the HPC faithful have been giving Kramer their opinions on Gates' high-profile selection for SC05. “People love him, people hate him,” Kramer chuckled. “But even if they're somewhere in-between, it looks like they will come see him speak.”

According to Kramer, those attendees that do should know Gates would not be blowing his marketing bugle. “He's going to do a technical talk,” Kramer explained. “Sure, he'll bring in Microsoft's interest in HPC, but he [Microsoft] is doing an HPC product announcement in this timeframe.” A lot of the keynote also will be based around Microsoft's research efforts in the field of HPC, he added.

SC05 is bolstering its bastions for Gates' speech, having more than 3,000 seats available in addition to two overflow areas. If getting Gates to speak is considered a coup, imagine the extra credit for getting him to answer some unscripted questions in an open question-and-answer forum after the speech. This looks like a reality. “We're very happy with the set-up,” Kramer said. “It should make for an interesting discussion.”

Kramer also is excited about the debut of what is called SC Desktop, an experiment that will extend some of the conference proceedings to people who could not typically attend the event. “This concept may really change the way the event runs,” he said. For example, graduate students who cannot make the trek to Seattle due to budgetary, time or visa restrictions will be able to view some of the happenings broadcast to their computers. SC Desktop takes in Gates' keynote, SC's technical content and one exhibitor forum. Gates' speech will also be available to all interested parties through Microsoft's pressroom on its site.

SC Desktop uses Access Grid technology to connect off-site attendees anywhere in the world to specific parts of the conference programs via an appropriate network connection. Participants then will have access to speaker plenary sessions, the Cray and Fernbach Award talks and four of the half-dozen parallel technology program tracks. The tracks include two sessions of SC Papers, one Masterworks presentation and one Exhibitor Forum.

Participants can choose to view the SC Global Showcase, which includes a keynote address by Rick Stevens, father of Access Grid, along with presentations on collaborative art, Grid technology, high-resolution visualization tools and collaborative group development.

Aside from watching the goings-on from their desktops, participants can ask questions via email. Kramer again explained SC Desktop is “an experiment for the conference,” meaning he “does expect a tremendous amount,” but that said, he added, “It's exciting to get more HPC content and information to a broader audience, especially students.”

Because, at the end of the day — even long ones like Kramer's — HPC's future is hinged on getting students and technology leaders interested in the field. “We need to continue growing the awareness,” he said. “And for a modest fee, SC Desktop gets the word out.” Look for the effort to expand in 2006, he said, with perhaps a virtual exhibit area.

As another way to spread the HPC gospel to the masses, Kramer said SC05 is undertaking the filming of a video. Coming on the heels of the Council on Competitiveness' outstanding DVD, expect SC's version of the HPC story to be more Ken Burns than the penguins from “Madagascar,” who starred in the council's movie.

The effort, which will detail why HPC machines are a necessity in our lives, will be distributed at SC. Unlike the council's effort, Kramer, added, this one is available at no cost.

Look for Microsoft to have a huge presence on the show floor, Kramer said. The company specifically targeted the exhibit space on the bridge between the conference's two exhibit halls. According to Kramer, the software giant was treated just like any other exhibitor. In fact, senior HPC stalwarts Cray Inc., IBM and Intel Corp. all passed on the exhibit territory that Microsoft cherished from the start.

Kramer points to SC05's HPC Analytics program as a path for bringing in new users to the event. The increased interest in storage issues, which started last year, also continues to go forward, he added. According to Kramer, computing, networking and storage are the three “stool legs” upon which the conference program is built.

He also credits this year's HPC Analytics Challenge for expanding the legions of supercomputing users who will be on hand. Most notably, Kramer added, HPC heavyweight Boeing will have a bigger presence at SC this year, in part due to its proximity to the event, but other big-name HPC users also have promised stepped-up participation.

The challenge represents an opportunity for industry, academia, government and other organizations to develop and demonstrate applications highlighting analytics techniques for solving complex, real-world problems. Submissions from around the world are under consideration, including ones focused on earthquake research, predictive modeling and traffic analytics.

According to Kramer, the rise in performance and overall computational power in HPC coupled with the rising amount of data collected have resulted in a rising interest in HPC Analytics. At the same time, the field, once the exclusive domain of government and research supercomputing communities, now has generated noteworthy interest from a range of business sectors.

All signs point to surpassing 2004's attendance. One key indicator, hotel reservations, are ahead of last year's tally to the point where additional hotels had to be secured for attendees, he said.

Meanwhile, at NERSC's Berkeley Lab, Kramer's “other” job, the facility's new Linux Networx Inc. supercomputer has been in production since August. According to Kramer, users “like it very much” and it has been kept busy with science production tasks.

There is also another new machine currently under scrutiny at NERSC, Kramer said. While it represents the lab's biggest and best-performing machine ever, it has not gained full acceptance yet, he explained.

While he categorized his demanding SC05 workload as “manageable” while the responsibilities at Berkeley Lab seem numerous, he admitted there have not always been enough hours in the day for his Ph.D. studies. He is pursuing his doctorate in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. “I'm a semester behind now,” he said. “But my advisors have been supportive and understanding.” Nevertheless, his studies have been relegated to late evening and early morning hours after his young daughter has gone to bed.

While he expects her to be in attendance this month in Seattle, he remarked she isn't expected to carry on the Kramer SC legacy until 2025.

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