Thoughts, Observations, Beliefs & Opinions About the NSF Supercomputer Centers

By Sidney Karin

January 28, 2010

There is no such thing as an NSF (Supercomputer) Center and there never has been. There should be. What there are, in the words of Ed Hayes, then comptroller of NSF, are “NSF ASSISTED Supercomputer Centers.”

This is a double edged sword. The directors of the NSF centers have historically had considerably more latitude and agility in their decision making and in the operations of their organizations than the directors of their peer organizations, sponsored by other federal agencies have had. This has led to much success in the past; in the pursuit of new avenues of research, development of innovative technologies, creation of research partnerships, fostering of relationships with both vendor and user industrial organizations and the raising of funds from outside sources.

The other side of the coin is that NSF has neither provided sufficient funding nor has it provided any other kind of support when centers found themselves in one sort of difficulty or another. In my direct experience, and to my direct knowledge of activities at other centers, NSF funding has been inadequate to provide the direct support of what used to be called the base program. Each center has raised funds from industry partners, state governments, local universities, and foundations.

These funds have been necessary to the successful operation of the base program and essential to the added value that the centers have created. This again is in contrast to the process at peer centers funded by other federal agencies. In my opinion this has been a worthwhile tradeoff for the so called NSF Supercomputer Centers. I would not have traded places with any of my contemporaries in other organizations. Nevertheless, it is possible to preserve the majority of the benefits while eliminating much of the negatives.

It comes as no surprise that the benefits of a research endeavor often go beyond the planned benefits of the research. Indeed, they frequently arise instead of the planned benefits. The so called NSF Supercomputer Centers have consistently provided modern state of the art computational infrastructure to the academic research community. Indeed, they have gone beyond that in the provision of early instances of leading edge computational and peripheral systems and the introduction of alternative approaches to computational science and engineering. More to the point, the centers have produced other results of enormous impact to the larger national and international community. MOSAIC is at the top of this list, but there have been many other successes. Note also the fundamental role of these centers in the establishment of the NSFnet and the transition to the commercial internet as we now know it.

These ancillary benefits have arisen precisely because of the flexibility and discretion afforded the centers. Indeed, in 1976 when DOE allowed such flexibility to its centers, LANL forged a deal with Seymour Cray that led to the establishment of the modern supercomputer industry. Later, when DOE would no longer allow such flexibility to its centers, the NSF centers were by default given the opportunity to work directly with vendors in the development and deployment of first of a kind computational systems. Some of these first of a kind systems became one of a kind systems while others flourished as is the nature of a research enterprise. The nation has benefited greatly from this prototype and test bed process at the NSF centers. In addition, the available flexibility and discretion afforded the centers was evident in numerous examples of the emergence of new research emphasis, new research directions, innovative software and technology development and deployment, and dozens, if not hundreds, of spin off commercial enterprises.

In recent years I have been saddened to observe (from a distance) the substantial reduction in this centrally important aspect of the program. Flexibility and agility are greatly reduced. Large system procurements seem far more appropriate to acquisition of business data processing systems for applications such as payroll and accounts receivable than for the advancement of science. The greatest accomplishments of NSF supercomputer centers program would not, and could not, have taken place under current procedures.

It should be obvious that I am calling for a return to the original successful model that was put in place when the centers were first established. But all was not perfect in that model either. In particular, despite the obligations of the Cooperative Agreements, NSF often acted capriciously and undependably in the actual provision of funds. This was a severe destabilizing influence.

Finally, the capriciousness of the NSF funding support was not limited to failure to live up to signed cooperative agreements. It extended to in effect compelling each center to recompete for its very existence on an annual basis. This has had a debilitating impact on center staff at all levels and upon the level of success of the centers. What is needed is some form of institutionalization that would remove the fear of termination and the attendant enormous efforts put forth to prevent termination, all at the expense of productive efforts in furtherance of the center’s missions and the academic research enterprise overall.

—–

Reprinted with permission of Sidney Karin, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, University of California, San Diego. The original article was published in December 2009 by the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS).

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Bill Gropp – Pursuing the Next Big Thing at NCSA

March 28, 2017

About eight months ago Bill Gropp was elevated to acting director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Read more…

By John Russell

UK to Launch Six Major HPC Centers

March 27, 2017

Six high performance computing centers will be formally launched in the U.K. later this week intended to provide wider access to HPC resources to U.K. Read more…

By John Russell

AI in the News: Rao in at Intel, Ng out at Baidu, Nvidia on at Tencent Cloud

March 26, 2017

Just as AI has become the leitmotif of the advanced scale computing market, infusing much of the conversation about HPC in commercial and industrial spheres, it also is impacting high-level management changes in the industry. Read more…

By Doug Black

Scalable Informatics Ceases Operations

March 23, 2017

On the same day we reported on the uncertain future for HPC compiler company PathScale, we are sad to learn that another HPC vendor, Scalable Informatics, is closing its doors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Quants Achieving Maximum Compute Power without the Learning Curve

The financial services industry is a fast-paced and data-intensive environment, and financial firms are realizing that they must modernize their IT infrastructures and invest in high performance computing (HPC) tools in order to survive. Read more…

‘Strategies in Biomedical Data Science’ Advances IT-Research Synergies

March 23, 2017

“Strategies in Biomedical Data Science: Driving Force for Innovation” by Jay A. Etchings is both an introductory text and a field guide for anyone working with biomedical data. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Launches New Machine Learning Journal

March 22, 2017

On Monday, Google announced plans to launch a new peer review journal and “ecosystem” Read more…

By John Russell

Swiss Researchers Peer Inside Chips with Improved X-Ray Imaging

March 22, 2017

Peering inside semiconductor chips using x-ray imaging isn’t new, but the technique hasn’t been especially good or easy to accomplish. Read more…

By John Russell

Bill Gropp – Pursuing the Next Big Thing at NCSA

March 28, 2017

About eight months ago Bill Gropp was elevated to acting director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Japanese Supercomputing Project Targets Exascale

March 14, 2017

Another Japanese supercomputing project was revealed this week, this one from emerging supercomputer maker, ExaScaler Inc., and Keio University. The partners are working on an original supercomputer design with exascale aspirations. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Debuts HGX-1 for Cloud; Announces Fujitsu AI Deal

March 9, 2017

On Monday Nvidia announced a major deal with Fujitsu to help build an AI supercomputer for RIKEN using 24 DGX-1 servers. Read more…

By John Russell

For IBM/OpenPOWER: Success in 2017 = (Volume) Sales

January 11, 2017

To a large degree IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation have done what they said they would – assembling a substantial and growing ecosystem and bringing Power-based products to market, all in about three years. Read more…

By John Russell

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular offerings such as Caffe, Theano, and Torch. Read more…

By John Russell

Lighting up Aurora: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of the DOE’s Upcoming 200 Petaflops Supercomputer

December 1, 2016

In April 2015, U.S. Department of Energy Undersecretary Franklin Orr announced that Intel would be the prime contractor for Aurora: Read more…

By Jan Rowell

Leading Solution Providers

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling was pretty much the exclusive realm of the Cray-2 and IBM mainframe class products. That’s changing. We are now seeing an emergence of x86 class server products with exotic plumbing technology ranging from Direct-to-Chip to servers and storage completely immersed in a dielectric fluid. Read more…

By Steve Campbell

Enlisting Deep Learning in the War on Cancer

December 7, 2016

Sometime in Q2 2017 the first ‘results’ of the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer (JDACS4C) will become publicly available according to Rick Stevens. He leads one of three JDACS4C pilot projects pressing deep learning (DL) into service in the War on Cancer. Read more…

By John Russell

BioTeam’s Berman Charts 2017 HPC Trends in Life Sciences

January 4, 2017

Twenty years ago high performance computing was nearly absent from life sciences. Today it’s used throughout life sciences and biomedical research. Genomics and the data deluge from modern lab instruments are the main drivers, but so is the longer-term desire to perform predictive simulation in support of Precision Medicine (PM). There’s even a specialized life sciences supercomputer, ‘Anton’ from D.E. Shaw Research, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is standing up its second Anton 2 and actively soliciting project proposals. There’s a lot going on. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Startup Advances Auto-Parallelization’s Promise

January 23, 2017

The shift from single core to multicore hardware has made finding parallelism in codes more important than ever, but that hasn’t made the task of parallel programming any easier. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Technique Propels Deep Learning at Scale

February 21, 2017

Researchers from Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL) have adapted a well-known HPC communication technique to boost the speed and scale of their neural network training and now they are sharing their implementation with the larger deep learning community. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU Benchmarking: Haswell Versus POWER8

June 2, 2015

With OpenPOWER activity ramping up and IBM’s prominent role in the upcoming DOE machines Summit and Sierra, it’s a good time to look at how the IBM POWER CPU stacks up against the x86 Xeon Haswell CPU from Intel. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IDG to Be Bought by Chinese Investors; IDC to Spin Out HPC Group

January 19, 2017

US-based publishing and investment firm International Data Group, Inc. (IDG) will be acquired by a pair of Chinese investors, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co., Ltd. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This