Executive Guide to SC08: Making the Most of the Conference

By Michael Feldman

November 10, 2008

The annual Supercomputing (SC) conference is the most important gathering of high performance computing professionals in the United States. You’d like to make sure that your time there is well spent, but SC can easily overwhelm attendees. It is all too easy to end up wandering the show floor for three days with the vague sense that you’re missing something.

There is certainly a lot to be learned by visiting the hundreds of university, commercial, and government exhibitors on the show floor. But the conference offers many more experiences that will expose you to new people, new ideas, and new relationships with the potential to transform the way you think about high performance computing. So how do you avoid missing out on what’s important to you?

We’ve created the HPCwire Executive Guide to SC08 to help you make sense of the myriad technical tracks, meetings, briefings, and activities that all compete for your attention during this busy week.

This guide is not a Cliff’s Notes version of the SC08 Program Guide: you won’t find everything here that the conference has to offer. The HPCwire team has studied the conference technical program, and used our understanding of the trends and technology that are shaping the industry to highlight what we feel are the key sessions, talks, and events to attend to get a better understanding of HPC today.

The attendees at SC are as diverse as the topics covered, and we know that not all of what we’ve picked out will be relevant to you. You’ll no doubt have meetings to attend, and other topics will grab your interest. None of this is a problem, because the recommendations in this guide are independent.

Have a free hour on Tuesday? Drop in on the Michael Dell keynote session. Want to get a handle on the issues driving today’s concerns about computational support infrastructure? You’ll find sessions and panels during the week in the guide that will help grow your understanding.

Picking out the trends: four key SC08 themes you need to follow

SC08 is a study in diversity. At this conference you’ll find researchers working on tomorrow’s new programming language, vendors selling today’s latest hardware, and the world’s largest providers of supercomputing resources hunting for ways to do a better job for their users.

There is certainly something for everyone at SC. But we’ve tried to look past the dizzying variety of supercomputing and see larger patterns in the conference—the themes that will help you understand HPC today, and where it is headed tomorrow.

There are four key themes in this year’s conference that bind together much of what is happening in the technical program. Whether you are a technical manager or a senior executive with HPC in your portfolio, these are the trends that you’ll need to understand as you move forward throughout this next year.

Computing at Scale

From vacuum tubes to transistors, and from Cray to Dell, it seems like the only constant in supercomputing is change.

But this isn’t quite true. All of the evolution over the past sixty or so years in HPC has been focused on providing access to more resources for the scientists and engineers working at the leading edge of society and technology.

Today large computing centers deploy machines with tens of teraflops, and the largest system in the world provides more than 1 petaflops of computation for its users.

Following the Computing at Scale theme in this year’s conference program will give you valuable insights into how the largest machines on the planet today are used, how they perform, and what you can expect from your supercomputers in the near future.

Computational Infrastructure

While there is no end in sight to the growth of supercomputers, we are already well past the point where their size is beginning to test the limits of our ability to use them effectively and, in many cases, to simply keep them turned on and cooled down.

As application developers search for reasonable mechanisms to express parallel work, HPC researchers are struggling to find effective development tools. Meanwhile, center operators are facing power and cooling demands beyond the limits of their physical plant , and are actively supporting research into ways to deploy and operate large scale computers.

Sessions in the Computational Infrastructure theme will expose you to evolving best practices and cutting edge research that will help you rise to the challenge of tomorrow’s machines.

Expanded Access

Computation is now recognized with theory and experiment as the triplet of disciplines that form the foundations of modern scientific thought.

Dan Reed, emphasizing HPC’s ability to reach across all disciplines—a reach that is unique among modern scientific instruments—referred to supercomputing as a “universal intellectual amplifier.” This realization carries with it the burden of a professional imperative: we must take every reasonable step to increase access to HPC and to ensure its effective use in all areas of human endeavor for the benefit of mankind.

Elements of the technical program that we have identified with the Expanded Access theme will focus on the technologies supercomputing providers are using to ensure that the broadest possible audience has access to, and can effectively use, HPC. In these sessions you’ll learn about workflows, grid technologies, and new interfaces that are designed to tame the unnecessary complexity of today’s supercomputing interface.

Application Horizons

Throughout the week the conference will be hosting panels, Masterworks sessions, and invited talks designed to educate you about the new disciplines that have already begun to take advantage of supercomputing, and the ways in which those disciplines are being transformed by technology.

Advances in the intersection of HPC and medicine, biology, the arts, cultural studies, business, and finance all have the potential to fundamentally alter our society and our understanding of our place in the world, and are among the fascinating new applications highlighted at this year’s conference.

Sessions in the Application Horizons theme will give you a glimpse of these new applications, and show you the potential of supercomputing to change our world. Studying the patterns of computation emerging from these disciplines will also give you a rare opportunity to think strategically about how these areas may fundamentally reshape HPC itself.

To see the weekly schedule of our recommended sessions, events and activities at SC08, click here.

If you prefer, you can download the SC08 guide (PDF) in its entirety.

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