Skills Gap Changing the Face of UK Supercomputing

By Russell Slack

June 20, 2013

Once upon a time a tech geek was a near-commodity. When we built a High Performance Computer (HPC) or ‘server cluster,’ we knew that our customers would have someone in-house, possibly a user, who would manage and maintain the system. HPC integrations were most common in the academic sector, so there were any number of budding computer engineers keen to fiddle, refine, and improve the system in their spare time. It was a personal challenge for many users.

Move to 2013 and it is boom-time for the design and integration of server clusters. According to a June 2013 IDC report, worldwide factory revenue for the HPC technical server market increased 5.3 percent in the first quarter of 2013 to reach 2.5 billion USD, up from 2.4 billion USD in the same period of 2012.

Server clusters are no longer the reserve of a few select universities with engineering and design aspirations. The UK Government recently invested £156m into UK research and development, a significant proportion of which has ended up in new academic server clusters. These clusters are used by a large range of disciplines from engineering, science, and mathematics to cosmology, archaeology, and economics. Durham, Warwick, Southampton, Aberdeen, Leicester, and Bristol universities have all built or upgraded systems in the last few months. 

Big businesses have gotten in on the act too and, space, cooling and energy permitting, the ever decreasing cost of hardware means that even SMBs can now afford to purchase their own server cluster. 

However, this boom presents a few challenges:

1. The new breed of customers, specifically the users, does not want to fiddle, refine and improve the system. They want a readymade utility compute service so they can focus on their primary business 

2. Full-time HPC managers are few and far between, as they are either very ‘green’ or come with 25 years of experience and are very expensive. The University of Central Lancashire [UCLan], for example, recently spent several months on a fruitless search for a full-time HPC manager after its incumbent left on short notice.

3. IT managers cannot stretch their skills to managing a server cluster. We tend to find that IT departments abound with wall-to-wall Microsoft experts who can maintain a normal IT infrastructure but can’t stretch to a Linux server cluster environment. They lack specific skills in configuring parallel file systems (such as IBM’s GPFS); they have no compiling skills to get maximum power from CPUs or GPUs; they cannot port codes to parallel programming languages such as MPI and they do not understand the weird and wonderful scientific applications that are commonly used. Fine-tuning a cluster is like your local mechanic working on an F1 racecar. It’s similar, but quite a few extra skills are needed.        

To help combat these challenges, Daresbury Laboratories is doing some great work to help develop HPC skills. Further, there is a GPFS user group in operation that we coordinate, which is successfully helping to promote learning amongst file system users. However, this development program could take several years to flood the industry with a new brood of tech-geeks.  

In the short term, lack of HPC skills is changing the face of supercomputing and leading to a boom in managed services, hosted clusters, and HPC-on-demand.

For example:

1. After an unsuccessful attempt to recruit a full-time HPC manager, UCLan eventually opted for remote managed services to operate its cluster. Graham Lee, Head of IT Infrastructure Management said at the time: “Our HPC system can now be remotely managed and is presently returning 98 per cent availability of service”.  

2. SMB engineering firm Engys recently purchased a hosted cluster, i.e. a cluster owned by the business, but held in a datacentre by the supplier and accessed remotely. Although primary driven by a lack of space and cooling in its own office, Francisco Campos, Director of Operations at Engys suggested: “A hosted cluster gives us freedom, we do not have to waste our own time and effort maintaining the cluster; we don’t need cluster skills”.

3. BHR Group, a fluid engineering consultancy, now uses an HPC-on-demand service which enables them to cope with peaks in demand for compute capacity. Dr David Kelsall, senior consultant at BHR Group suggests, “We use a HPC-on-demand service, it is a very easy, with an uncomplicated and simple structure that doesn’t require any previous HPC knowledge to operate”.

The HPC industry is like a winding road with new technologies, innovations, and suppliers bending and shaping its path. However, for the first time, as a result of a lack of skills, organisations have four roads to choose from: an in-house cluster if skills are available, a managed service, a hosted cluster, or an HPC-on-demand service. It is thus an exciting time to be in the industry as supercomputing power becomes more accessible.

About Russell Slack

Working for OCF plc since 2002 and with its predecessor firm since December 1995; Russell is Operations Director.

Responsible for a team of HPC and storage specialists along with the Operations and Project Management teams; Russell has worked his way up from Trainee Engineer, UNIX System Engineer, Senior Engineer and Engineering Manager with OCF plc.

Russell oversees every part of customers’ installations which includes: coordinating delivery of customers’ orders to OCF for pre-installation quality testing purposes; investigating the most effective way of implementing solutions; coordinating the delivery and managing the installation of solutions at customers’ sites and the creation and agreement of Statements of Work and bespoke SLA contracts to ensure that the scope of work is clearly understood by all parties and on-going support packages are tailored to the customers’ needs.

Russell joined OCF directly from Sheffield College where he gained a Diploma in Computer Studies.

He is a certified PRINCE2 Project Management practitioner, IBM certified solution architect for cloud computing infrastructure V1, ITIL v3 certified, holds Linux technical certification from the Linux Professional Institute (LPI), and IBM professional certification (IBM Certified Systems Expert – System X and System P and IBM Enterprise Technical Support AIX 5L V5.3) together with a whole host of qualifications on various other UNIX platforms.

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