Q&A: Jack Wells, Director of Science for the National Center for Computational Sciences

By Dawn Levy

September 26, 2011

New leader shares challenges and opportunities as the scientific community gears up for hybrid supercomputing

On July 1 Jack Wells became the director of science for the National Center for Computational Sciences (NCCS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The NCCS is a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility for capability computing, which employs maximal computing power to solve in the shortest time possible problems of a size or complexity that no other computer can approach. Its Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF) houses Jaguar, America’s fastest supercomputer, used by researchers to solve pressing science and energy challenges via modeling and simulation. Leveraging expertise and infrastructure, the NCCS also hosts the Gaea supercomputer, which ORNL operates on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Kraken supercomputer, which is managed by the National Institute for Computational Sciences, a collaboration between the University of Tennessee and ORNL.

In this interview, Wells describes his vision for executing a scientific strategy for the NCCS that ensures cost-effective, state-of-the-art computing to facilitate DOE’s scientific missions. To begin this decade’s transition to exaflop computing, capable of carrying out a million trillion floating point operations per second, plans are in the works for a staged upgrade of Jaguar, a high performance computing system employing traditional CPU microprocessors, to transform it into Titan, a hybrid system employing both CPUs and GPUs,energy-efficient number crunchers that accelerate specific types of calculations in scientific application codes. As the OLCF gears up to deliver the system, expected to have a peak performance of 10–20 petaflops, by early 2013, Wells’s challenges are many.

HPCwire: What was your role in ORNL’s Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate before it housed and ran a national user facility?

Wells: I came here as a [Vanderbilt] graduate student working on Office of Science-funded projects in nuclear and atomic physics. My Ph.D. was sponsored by a grand challenge project funded under a program that started with the High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1992—that’s called the Gore Act because Senator Gore was the main sponsor in the U.S. Senate, and it’s through that, as the old story goes, he ‘invented’ the Internet. It was that program [which partnered HPC science teams from around the country with ORNL computer scientists and hardware vendor Intel] that founded the Center for Computational Sciences (CCS) originally in 1992.

After a postdoc I came back to ORNL in ’97 as a Wigner Fellow in the CCS, and Buddy Bland [project director of the OLCF-2, which built the petascale Jaguar system, and the OLCF-3, which will build the even more powerful Titan] was my first group leader. I worked in the Scientific Computing group on parallel code performance optimization and doing my science in theoretical atomic and molecular physics. I did use the CCS computers that we had in my Ph.D. thesis—the Intel iPSC/860 and Intel XP/S 5 Paragon. Then when I came back in ’97 we had the XP/S 35 Paragon and XP/S 150 then too. We transitioned to the IBM Eagle by about 1999.

The point is that we had a CCS even before we had a Leadership Computing Facility. Beginning in 1999, I worked on basic materials and engineering physics programs in DOE’s Office of Science Basic Energy Sciences. And then when the [Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, or CNMS] was constructed at Oak Ridge, I along with my group was matrixed to form the Nanomaterials Theory Institute at the CNMS. During that time, Oak Ridge competed for and won the DOE Leadership Computing Facility in 2004. The significant thing is that CCS has been here for almost 20 years. Next year we have a 20-year anniversary.

HPCwire: What was it like to serve as an advisor to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander?

Wells: Since Senator Alexander has been a senator, starting in 2003, he has requested that the Office of Science provide him a Science Fellow from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Office of Science has worked with the lab to provide, now, five people. This has been a relationship where Senator Alexander has benefitted from the expertise of the Office of Science and ORNL.

As Senator Alexander is fully aware, the largest federal investment in the state of Tennessee is the one that DOE makes in its facilities in and around Oak Ridge, with ORNL being one of those. And many of the Senator’s priorities align very well with our mission. Those include clean air, abundant clean energy, increased brain power as a driver for economic competitiveness, energy security. He has been an advocate for Office of Science programs within the U.S. Senate, including leadership computing. In particular, he and New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman were the lead authors in the senate on the DOE High-End Computing Act of 2004 that authorized funding for the leadership computing facilities.

I was not there in 2004. I went there from 2006 to 2008, and my title there was one of a legislative fellow. A fellow is someone who is working in the Senate but is not an employee of the Senate. Many scientists and engineers do this, for example through fellowships sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While I was there I did not do politics. I did not make policy. But I informed the Senator on topics related to high performance computing, energy technology, renewable energy, nuclear energy, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and its relationship to U.S. competitiveness.

HPCwire: Did directing institutional planning for ORNL provide lessons that might guide you in your new role?

Wells: What I learned from working for our laboratory director’s office from August of 2009 through June of 2011—that’s the job I was just doing before I came to the NCCS—is that both planning and science are about the future, and we need to not be constrained in our thinking by the status quo, but to try to establish a clear and compelling vision for the future for our science programs, for our institution, and ultimately, in collaboration with others, for our nation; to not always think about what is, but what could be, and why it would be an attractive future.

ARPA-E [a DOE program to spur energy innovations] is an interesting case of a good idea articulated by policymakers that was fairly rapidly put in place. It was authorized by Congress and then implemented by DOE, initially through Recovery Act funding, to bring a new approach to funding high-risk, high reward energy technology research within the Department of Energy. It’s been reviewed very well by industry and its sponsors in Congress. The ability to take risks and reach for the big payoffs is something that we should think about and try to implement when we can.

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!

And So It Begins…Again – The FY19 Exascale Budget Rollout (and things look good)

February 23, 2018

On February 12, 2018, the Trump administration submitted its Fiscal Year 2019 (FY-19) budget to Congress. The good news for the U.S. exascale program is that the numbers look very good and the support appears to be stron Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

Lenovo Unveils Warm Water Cooled ThinkSystem SD650 in Rampup to LRZ Install

February 22, 2018

This week Lenovo took the wraps off the ThinkSystem SD650 high-density server with third-generation direct water cooling technology developed in tandem with partner Leibniz Supercomputing Center (LRZ) in Germany. The ser Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Start-up Aims AI at Automated Tuning of Complex Systems

February 22, 2018

Today’s bigger, more complex, connected and intelligent systems have an exponentially higher number of connections, dependencies, interfaces, protocols and processing architectures that, if not optimized, will hamstrin Read more…

By Doug Black

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Experience Memory & Storage Solutions that will Transform Your Data Performance

High performance computing (HPC) has revolutionized the way we harness insight, leading to a dramatic increase in both the size and complexity of HPC systems. Read more…

Do Cryptocurrencies Have a Part to Play in HPC?

February 22, 2018

It’s easy to be distracted by news from the US, China, and now the EU on the state of various exascale projects, but behind the vinyl-wrapped cabinets and well-groomed sales execs are an army of Excel-wielding PMO and Read more…

By Chris Downing

Lenovo Unveils Warm Water Cooled ThinkSystem SD650 in Rampup to LRZ Install

February 22, 2018

This week Lenovo took the wraps off the ThinkSystem SD650 high-density server with third-generation direct water cooling technology developed in tandem with par Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Start-up Aims AI at Automated Tuning of Complex Systems

February 22, 2018

Today’s bigger, more complex, connected and intelligent systems have an exponentially higher number of connections, dependencies, interfaces, protocols and pr Read more…

By Doug Black

HOKUSAI’s BigWaterfall Cluster Extends RIKEN’s Supercomputing Performance

February 21, 2018

RIKEN, Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution, recently expanded the capacity and capabilities of its HOKUSAI supercomputer, a key resource manage Read more…

By Ken Strandberg

Neural Networking Shows Promise in Earthquake Monitoring

February 21, 2018

A team of Harvard University and MIT researchers report their new neural networking method for monitoring earthquakes is more accurate and orders of magnitude faster than traditional approaches. Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Wins $57 Million DoD Supercomputing Contract

February 20, 2018

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) today revealed details of its massive $57 million HPC contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The deal calls for HP Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fluid HPC: How Extreme-Scale Computing Should Respond to Meltdown and Spectre

February 15, 2018

The Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities are proving difficult to fix, and initial experiments suggest security patches will cause significant performance penal Read more…

By Pete Beckman

Brookhaven Ramps Up Computing for National Security Effort

February 14, 2018

Last week, Dan Coats, the director of Director of National Intelligence for the U.S., warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia was likely to meddle in the 2018 mid-term U.S. elections, much as it stands accused of doing in the 2016 Presidential election. Read more…

By John Russell

AI Cloud Competition Heats Up: Google’s TPUs, Amazon Building AI Chip

February 12, 2018

Competition in the white hot AI (and public cloud) market pits Google against Amazon this week, with Google offering AI hardware on its cloud platform intended Read more…

By Doug Black

Inventor Claims to Have Solved Floating Point Error Problem

January 17, 2018

"The decades-old floating point error problem has been solved," proclaims a press release from inventor Alan Jorgensen. The computer scientist has filed for and Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Japan Unveils Quantum Neural Network

November 22, 2017

The U.S. and China are leading the race toward productive quantum computing, but it's early enough that ultimate leadership is still something of an open questi Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AMD Showcases Growing Portfolio of EPYC and Radeon-based Systems at SC17

November 13, 2017

AMD’s charge back into HPC and the datacenter is on full display at SC17. Having launched the EPYC processor line in June along with its MI25 GPU the focus he Read more…

By John Russell

Researchers Measure Impact of ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Patches on HPC Workloads

January 17, 2018

Computer scientists from the Center for Computational Research, State University of New York (SUNY), University at Buffalo have examined the effect of Meltdown Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Begins Power9 Rollout with Backing from DOE, Google

December 6, 2017

After over a year of buildup, IBM is unveiling its first Power9 system based on the same architecture as the Department of Energy CORAL supercomputers, Summit a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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

Fast Forward: Five HPC Predictions for 2018

December 21, 2017

What’s on your list of high (and low) lights for 2017? Volta 100’s arrival on the heels of the P100? Appearance, albeit late in the year, of IBM’s Power9? Read more…

By John Russell

Russian Nuclear Engineers Caught Cryptomining on Lab Supercomputer

February 12, 2018

Nuclear scientists working at the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (RFNC-VNIIEF) have been arrested for using lab supercomputing resources to mine crypto-currency, according to a report in Russia’s Interfax News Agency. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Chip Flaws ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Loom Large

January 4, 2018

The HPC and wider tech community have been abuzz this week over the discovery of critical design flaws that impact virtually all contemporary microprocessors. T Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Perspective: What Really Happened at SC17?

November 22, 2017

SC is over. Now comes the myriad of follow-ups. Inboxes are filled with templated emails from vendors and other exhibitors hoping to win a place in the post-SC thinking of booth visitors. Attendees of tutorials, workshops and other technical sessions will be inundated with requests for feedback. Read more…

By Andrew Jones

How Meltdown and Spectre Patches Will Affect HPC Workloads

January 10, 2018

There have been claims that the fixes for the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities, named the KPTI (aka KAISER) patches, are going to affect applicatio Read more…

By Rosemary Francis

GlobalFoundries, Ayar Labs Team Up to Commercialize Optical I/O

December 4, 2017

GlobalFoundries (GF) and Ayar Labs, a startup focused on using light, instead of electricity, to transfer data between chips, today announced they've entered in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tensors Come of Age: Why the AI Revolution Will Help HPC

November 13, 2017

Thirty years ago, parallel computing was coming of age. A bitter battle began between stalwart vector computing supporters and advocates of various approaches to parallel computing. IBM skeptic Alan Karp, reacting to announcements of nCUBE’s 1024-microprocessor system and Thinking Machines’ 65,536-element array, made a public $100 wager that no one could get a parallel speedup of over 200 on real HPC workloads. Read more…

By John Gustafson & Lenore Mullin

Flipping the Flops and Reading the Top500 Tea Leaves

November 13, 2017

The 50th edition of the Top500 list, the biannual publication of the world’s fastest supercomputers based on public Linpack benchmarking results, was released Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

V100 Good but not Great on Select Deep Learning Aps, Says Xcelerit

November 27, 2017

Wringing optimum performance from hardware to accelerate deep learning applications is a challenge that often depends on the specific application in use. A benc Read more…

By John Russell

SC17: Singularity Preps Version 3.0, Nears 1M Containers Served Daily

November 1, 2017

Just a few months ago about half a million jobs were being run daily using Singularity containers, the LBNL-founded container platform intended for HPC. That wa Read more…

By John Russell

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