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!

Researchers Scale COSMO Climate Code to 4888 GPUs on Piz Daint

October 17, 2017

Effective global climate simulation, sorely needed to anticipate and cope with global warming, has long been computationally challenging. Two of the major obstacles are the needed resolution and prolonged time to compute Read more…

By John Russell

Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Cluster Competition coverage has come to its natural home: H Read more…

By Dan Olds

UCSD Web-based Tool Tracking CA Wildfires Generates 1.5M Views

October 16, 2017

Tracking the wildfires raging in northern CA is an unpleasant but necessary part of guiding efforts to fight the fires and safely evacuate affected residents. One such tool – Firemap – is a web-based tool developed b Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Transforming Genomic Analytics with HPC-Accelerated Insights

Advancements in the field of genomics are revolutionizing our understanding of human biology, rapidly accelerating the discovery and treatment of genetic diseases, and dramatically improving human health. Read more…

Exascale Imperative: New Movie from HPE Makes a Compelling Case

October 13, 2017

Why is pursuing exascale computing so important? In a new video – Hewlett Packard Enterprise: Eighteen Zeros – four HPE executives, a prominent national lab HPC researcher, and HPCwire managing editor Tiffany Trader Read more…

By John Russell

Student Cluster Competition Coverage New Home

October 16, 2017

Hello computer sports fans! This is the first of many (many!) articles covering the world-wide phenomenon of Student Cluster Competitions. Finally, the Student Read more…

By Dan Olds

Intel Delivers 17-Qubit Quantum Chip to European Research Partner

October 10, 2017

On Tuesday, Intel delivered a 17-qubit superconducting test chip to research partner QuTech, the quantum research institute of Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands. The announcement marks a major milestone in the 10-year, $50-million collaborative relationship with TU Delft and TNO, the Dutch Organization for Applied Research, to accelerate advancements in quantum computing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fujitsu Tapped to Build 37-Petaflops ABCI System for AIST

October 10, 2017

Fujitsu announced today it will build the long-planned AI Bridging Cloud Infrastructure (ABCI) which is set to become the fastest supercomputer system in Japan Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

October 10, 2017

For the first time since AMD's ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, 'Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?' doesn't have to be 'Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure'. Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Intel Debuts Programmable Acceleration Card

October 5, 2017

With a view toward supporting complex, data-intensive applications, such as AI inference, video streaming analytics, database acceleration and genomics, Intel i Read more…

By Doug Black

OLCF’s 200 Petaflops Summit Machine Still Slated for 2018 Start-up

October 3, 2017

The Department of Energy’s planned 200 petaflops Summit computer, which is currently being installed at Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, is on track t Read more…

By John Russell

US Exascale Program – Some Additional Clarity

September 28, 2017

The last time we left the Department of Energy’s exascale computing program in July, things were looking very positive. Both the U.S. House and Senate had pas Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

US Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer: Aurora in 2021

September 27, 2017

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, in Arlington, Va., yesterday (Sept. 26), it was revealed that the "Aurora" supercompute Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 20), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Cray Moves to Acquire the Seagate ClusterStor Line

July 28, 2017

This week Cray announced that it is picking up Seagate's ClusterStor HPC storage array business for an undisclosed sum. "In short we're effectively transitioning the bulk of the ClusterStor product line to Cray," said CEO Peter Ungaro. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Intel Launches Software Tools to Ease FPGA Programming

September 5, 2017

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have a reputation for being difficult to program, requiring expertise in specialty languages, like Verilog or VHDL. Easin Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Advances Web-based Quantum Programming

September 5, 2017

IBM Research is pairing its Jupyter-based Data Science Experience notebook environment with its cloud-based quantum computer, IBM Q, in hopes of encouraging a new class of entrepreneurial user to solve intractable problems that even exceed the capabilities of the best AI systems. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

Intel, NERSC and University Partners Launch New Big Data Center

August 17, 2017

A collaboration between the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), Intel and five Intel Parallel Computing Cente Read more…

By Linda Barney

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