Reflections on The Newport Conference — HPCC-08

By Mike Bernhardt

May 19, 2008

Now that several piles of urgent memos have been cleared from my desk, I wanted to share some thoughts on the National High Performance Computing & Communications (HPCC) conference that took place in Newport, Rhode Island, at the end of March.

This was the 22nd annual conference, and I have to say, this one was particularly enjoyable.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this conference, many HPC insiders affectionately refer to this event as “the Newport conference.” It’s a very intimate event that is purposely limited to no more than 120 attendees. While the conference always has some interesting and timely presentations, this event is really about networking and lively interaction.

And, if you haven’t heard about the “lively” panel discussion moderated by Bob Feldman of HPC Marketing, well, I plan to cover that in a subsequent article. It was entertaining, to say the least. And, Intel’s Stephen Wheat’s passionate plea for the participants to become more aware of national competitiveness and our search for the next generation of HPC movers and shakers is worthy of an article on its own.

But for now, I’d like to share some thoughts from an informal survey I conducted among the attendees regarding their views of the best presentations.

Hands down, the recognition for best presentation delivered at HPCC-08 goes to Dr. Eng Lim Goh, SGI’s Chief Technical Officer. He took a presentation that many people would have butchered into boredom or technical chaos, “Challenges in designing a petaflop system, to run applications that are not embarrassingly parallel, before 2010,” and delivered it in a style that identifies him as a true thought leader and HPC evangelist.

I’ve seen Eng Lim present at this conference and others on numerous occasions. He’s consistently an excellent presenter. But his presentation at this conference was exceptional. Maybe it was the setting or the intimacy of the group of familiar faces, but numerous people gave me the same feedback. His “passion” and “enthusiasm” came through loud and clear and contributed to a very entertaining and captivating presentation. He held everyone’s attention with great examples of visualization and humorous anecdotal stories, all wrapped up in a well-paced presentation that was delivered with warmth and sincerity.

The magic combination: Great content. Entertaining Delivery. Authentic Leadership. Well done Eng Lim.

Three other presenters received enough votes that I feel comfortable ranking them in a three-way tie for second place in the category of “most interesting and memorable presentations.” Kudos go to:

Dr. David Shaw, Chief Scientist of D.E. Shaw Research. His presentation was on “Anton,” a great case study that demonstrates the need for specialized capability machines. David’s research group is currently building a highly specialized, massively parallel machine, targeted for completion in late 2008, with the goal of executing millisecond-scale, classical molecular dynamic simulations of one or more proteins at an atomic level of detail.

Comments included, “impressive,” “excellent presentation,” “fascinating.” and my favorite, “I had no idea this was going on… where did these guys come from?”

Dr. Tim Germann from LANL. His presentation discussed “Flu Pandemics,” using methods developed for molecular dynamics to build a powerful epidemiological modeling tool for investigating techniques to aid in biothreat reduction. This is serious stuff. Tim’s presentation topic has been discussed on national television and featured in publications such as Scientific American, Wired Magazine and The Economist. The work presented to us in Newport has also been utilized by the White House Homeland Security Council and the Centers for Disease Control in preparing a National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. I was amazed at how Tim brought the topic down to a level of understanding appropriate for a very wide audience.

Attendees described his presentation as “fascinating,” “thought provoking,” and “extremely well presented for clarity.”

Dr. Don Lamb, University of Chicago. Another genuine and passionate speaker. This is the first time I had seen Don present and I can honestly say I would go out of my way to catch his presentation if I saw him on the program at a conference. OK, I love astronomy, so I thought maybe I was just fascinated by the topic — revealing recent observations of supernovae explosions from large-scale simulations. But it turns out I wasn’t the only one enthralled with Don’s discussion. He supplemented his presentation with several movies capturing these fascinating high-resolution, 3-D simulations. And, he presented the topic with a great deal of enthusiasm and passion — pulling the audience into this cosmic perspective.

Comments for Don’s presentation included, “wow,!” “excellent presentation,” “great presenter… enthusiastic and sincere” and, my personal favorite, “out of this world.”

You can still find more information on these speakers and their presentations at the HPCC-08 Web site: www.hpcc-usa.org.

In my next piece, I’ll write about the lively and colorful panel presentations from Newport and then get down to some of the more controversial discussions of multicore and the need for a new generation of HPC tools.

Remember, market with passion. It’s not what you say. It’s what they remember.

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