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June 29, 2007

Swiss HPC Users and Investments 2008-2011

by Daniele Testa

Shall Swiss HPC users be able to benefit from an additional 150 million Swiss Francs for the purchase of a high-end national HPC system for the 2008-2011 period? This is the key question these days in Switzerland and in particular in its capital, Bern, where members of the Federal Parliament are intensively discussing the Swiss HPC future. The current situation resulting from past controversies, as previously reported by HPCwire articles on June 23, 2006 “Swiss HPC Users Devise Strategy at Annual Assembly” and January 5, 2007 “Swiss HPC Users Autumn 2006 Meeting Report“, will be addressed.

The premier Swiss newspapers from Zurich, Neue Zuercher Zeitung (on June 24, 2007) and Tages Anzeiger (on June 26, 2007) are reporting that the ETH board — the strategic management group of the entire ETH domain, to which also the Swiss National Supercomputing Center, CSCS, belongs – has just requested 150 million Swiss Francs from the Swiss Parliament for the development of national HPC resources for the four-year period 2008-2011. However, both newspapers are reporting a considerable degree of irritation created by this request. The members of Parliament are requesting a full and definitive clarification of the numerous severe and long lasting management problems related to CSCS before any discussion on future investments begins.

The clarification of the very serious accusations against CSCS management, both at the strategic level (CSCS Steering Board President, Monica Duca Widmer) and operational level (CSCS CEO Marie-Christine Sawley and COO Dominik Ulmer) should have been addressed by the report of the administrative inquiry ordered by ETH President, Prof. Ernst Hafen. The results of this inquiry should have been presented at the press conference held on February 26, 2007 by Prof. Konrad Osterwalder, ETH president, after Hafen stepped down after less than a year as ETH president. However, the press conference raised even more questions than it clarified, as reported in detail by local Swiss Italian press.

The only certainty is that retired Swiss Italian University President (USI), Prof. Marco Baggiolini has joined Sawley and Ulmer as co-director of the CSCS. Baggiolini’s appointment alongside Sawley and Ulmer seems to support the requirements of the Swiss HPC Users Assembly (see aforementioned HPCwire articles), as well as those of nine CSCS key collaborators who heavily criticized Sawley and Ulmer and requested their immediate resignations one year ago. Osterwalder excluded administering any sanctions against these nine collaborators.

Concerning the administrative inquiry conducted by lawyers Müller & Fischer of Zurich, Osterwalder said only that management had not been entirely in control of the situation. “Some weak points have emerged in management which need to be corrected,” he said. However, during the press conference, Osterwalder spoke about a second inquiry, that of politician Gian A. Vital, explaining that the two inquiries had come to different conclusions and were even opposed on some issues. “For this reason we have decided not to publicize them as there is no popular interest in their contents.”

This strange line of argument is heavily criticized because Vital is an engineer, not a jurist, and his mandate was only “coaching/tutoring of the management” during the one official administrative inquiry of Müller & Fischer. Still, this “coaching” mandate of Vital, as well as the peer review (the third CSCS investigation, done in parallel with first two) seems to have been used as a sort of interference strategy with respect to the administrative inquiry, with the final effect of a strange “mutual annihilation.”

Swiss politicians are also questioning the issue of CSCS governance. A key role at CSCS is played by the Steering Board and its president, Monica Duca Widmer. However, the administrative inquiry was ordered by Prof. Ernst Hafen, the former president of the ETH Zurich, to which CSCS belongs, who is in turn hierarchically subordinate to the ETH board. Monica Duca Widmer is also a member of the ETH board and as such the supervisor of those who ordered an administrative inquiry into her activities as CSCS strategic management.

From today’s perspective it might have been better to have fully communicated the results of the CSCS administrative inquiry back in February. Now, politicians in Bern see it as a condition to further invest in Swiss HPC and, in particular, in CSCS – a publicly funded entity whose mission is one of national interest.

The definitive clarification, as requested by the members of Swiss Parliament as condition for any further investment, by re-focusing again on the report of the administrative investigation on CSCS management by Müller & Fischer, can only be in the best interest of Swiss HPC users, and in a twofold way. Firstly, this is a condition for new public investments by the Parliament. Secondly, the big investments designated to the benefit of the users should flow into organizations they trust. Seeing the high level of users’ frustration reported in the HPCwire articles, the withholding of the investigation report by Osterwalder might have been a big mistake. The users should see the report as basis for their future trust.

The task of providing the definitive clarification on the CSCS administrative investigation will now be with Prof. Ralph Eichler, the newly elected ETH Zurich President and best informed individual regarding the CSCS dossier. Eichler has also been the Member of the CSCS Steering Board since its creation.

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