The Six Personalities of Supercomputing

By Andrew Jones

November 16, 2012

There are two types of people in supercomputing – people that have a top 10 supercomputer and people that don’t. Or people who understand the exascale problem and people who understand the missing middle problem. Or people who have scalable applications and people that don’t.

Or people who claim just two types of person and then list several non-exclusive options.

In my usual part serious, part provocative style, here is my light-hearted look at the different personality stereotypes involved in high performance computing. This is by no means an exclusive list, but it does illustrate the range of people who contribute to the flavor of the world of supercomputing.

1. The Great Wall of China type.Our supercomputer is so big you can see it from outer space!” To these people, the size of the supercomputer is the primary factor determining standing in the supercomputing world. They’ll talk to you if your supercomputer can be seen from low orbit, will feel sorry for you if your machine is only visible from low flying aircraft, and refuse to acknowledge your relevance if your system is only visible from the ground.

Now, in no way am I suggesting that the size of a supercomputer is not important. Almost self-evidently it is. A more powerful supercomputer can enable more realistic simulations, new kinds of science enquiry, or more comprehensive data analytics.

And sometimes real breakthroughs do occur as a direct result of the scale of the supercomputer used. But smaller supercomputers, even ones not visible from altitude, also deliver cutting edge science, engineering and data analytics.

2. The Apocalypse type. These people are convinced the end of supercomputing is at hand. Most of them focus on the technology challenges that seemingly erect impassable barriers to our progress. Exascale can’t happen because of power. And even if we could afford the power, we wouldn’t be able to program it. And even then, the system/application would collapse in a statistically inevitable heap of errors after a few minutes. Not to mention the skills shortage. We may as well give up now and just keep deploying the systems we have now.

Then there are the ones who proclaim that doom is not technological; it is political and financial. They argue that we cannot sustain the increasing budgets at the national lab scale, nor will senior managers in research-led businesses fund the increasing demand for supercomputer technology to enable higher fidelity simulation and deeper analytics. Quite rightly, they preach that simply quoting wonderful science is not enough justification (to the world outside of HPC) for these investments. This is where the Fort Knox types come in.

3. The Fort Knox type. It’s about the money to these people. They are driven by the big dollar deals, ideally, the high profit margin ones. They are reluctant to invest time in meetings, travel, projects, or acquisitions that don’t provide a substantial financial return this year. They often inhabit the parts of the ecosystem with better margins or with commercial applicability outside HPC (e.g. storage, networking, and so on) or sometimes can be found in those HPC vendors that keeping trying to discover a profitable business in selling solutions to buyers of technology with aggressive cost ambitions.

They are among the sharpest dressers, the most ardent advocates of their piece of the ecosystem, and get the least passionate interest from the buyers and users of supercomputers. Money and supercomputing always have been strange partners. Clearly, money, and lots of it, is required to fund the development, deployment, and operation of supercomputers and their enabling technologies (e.g. software).

But with such a technically dominated population of inhabitants, the HPC space often struggles to focus on this harsh reality. If companies can’t make money, or we can’t persuade politicians (and, by extension, the general public) to invest, then the R&D that is the lifeblood feeding the future of our world will weaken.

Likewise, the need to prove the economic return on investments in HPC services (both hardware and software) in commercial and academic/national lab spaces cannot be forgotten. The Fort Knox types have a crucial role to play in ensuring HPC continues to sustainably deliver its great potential. But the focus on money must balance with the pursuit of the technical race without which supercomputing would be meaningless.

4. The Art Gallery type. Keen to assure you as early as possible in the conversation that they are not technical – they leave technical detail to other people. Presenting a front of pride in their non-technical status, these people are usually, but not always, sales or business management people. However, a chink in their psyche appears, when they almost immediately follow up and make sure you know they once wrote some code.

Thus, they probably do recognize the integral value of technical understanding in the HPC world. But, either they are nervous about their lack of understanding (don’t be – not everyone is an expert – just be willing!) or they are hoping their stance will come across as above the detail (not good – this is often a detail game). And, in reality, the world of HPC is marked by significant technical expertise in so many of the people in sales positions, senior management or other traditionally business focused roles.

But there are also many who are not experts (or maybe aren’t anymore) but who have enough technology or science understanding to play their part in the ecosystem. Be proud of the technical knowledge you do have, honestly admit its limits, and be keen to learn more as needed. But then, you could say that about any skill, not just HPC.

5. The Horse-drawn Cart type.I remember when …” This person is able to turn any conversation about next year’s technology or this week’s implementation issue into a prolonged reminiscence of their distant childhood making supercomputers out of wooden sticks and spittle. Filled with “we tried that years ago,” “we had it much harder,” or “we should go back to the way we used to do it,” these monologues eventually stall as the polite but glazed expressions cemented on the faces around the room slowly reveal the audience has departed to mind-wandering land.

Occasionally, these reminiscences take a life of their own as dialogue springs forth – yes, those dreaded occasions when there is more than one Horse-drawn Cart type in the room. Sometimes, there are gems of insight relevant to the present or future to be found in these experiences though. The key to finding the gems is distinguishing the Horse-drawn Cart types from the Concorde types.

6. The Concorde type. Now that it is no longer flying the world with brutal performance and elegant class, this marvel of engineering brilliance and commercial application is distressingly easily seeping away from our memory. I’m writing this article sat in one of the other flagships of aviation, the Boeing 747, as I cross the Atlantic on my way to Salt Lake City for SC12 (there are about a dozen other HPC people just within a few rows of me).

But, much as I appreciate the 747 as probably the elder statesman of the skies, I wish the Concorde was still flying. Not that I’d expect to ride in it; it’s out of my league. But it is a shame that we have thrown away such a monumental capability: the 3 hour transatlantic crossing. That is a different class of interchange between London and New York than the current journey of a whole day’s flying.

More amazing still was that it was essentially 1960s technology. And this is my link to supercomputing. Some great technological achievements have peppered the history of supercomputing – processors, systems, algorithms, software implementations, etc. Many of them have been overtaken by subsequent products or technology shifts, but many we still rely on directly or via their evolutionary successors.  And, supercomputing too, is judged on the capability it enables, not merely the engineering brilliance of the technology implementation.

And the people part? Well, people made those great supercomputing technology advances. Some are sadly gone, many are still with us. In the fullness of the modern HPC ecosystem it is easy to let the impact of those technological leaps and their creators seep from our memory. Don’t.

So there you go – a selective stereotyping of the people that make supercomputing the marvel that we know – so powerful in its impact, often frustrating in its reality, usually addictive to those who encounter it, but always special. And, hopefully a few serious points about our community have been highlighted along the way. How many of these types did you see at SC12 this week? What types have I missed? Which, if any, are you?

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!

Data Vortex Users Contemplate the Future of Supercomputing

October 19, 2017

Last month (Sept. 11-12), HPC networking company Data Vortex held its inaugural users group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) bringing together about 30 participants from industry, government and academia t Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AI Self-Training Goes Forward at Google DeepMind

October 19, 2017

DeepMind, Google’s AI research organization, announced today in a blog that AlphaGo Zero, the latest evolution of AlphaGo (the first computer program to defeat a Go world champion) trained itself within three days to play Go at a superhuman level (i.e., better than any human) – and to beat the old version of AlphaGo – without leveraging human expertise, data or training. Read more…

By Doug Black

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

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…

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

Data Vortex Users Contemplate the Future of Supercomputing

October 19, 2017

Last month (Sept. 11-12), HPC networking company Data Vortex held its inaugural users group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) bringing together ab Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AI Self-Training Goes Forward at Google DeepMind

October 19, 2017

DeepMind, Google’s AI research organization, announced today in a blog that AlphaGo Zero, the latest evolution of AlphaGo (the first computer program to defeat a Go world champion) trained itself within three days to play Go at a superhuman level (i.e., better than any human) – and to beat the old version of AlphaGo – without leveraging human expertise, data or training. Read more…

By Doug Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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