Perspective: What Really Happened at SC17?

By Andrew Jones

November 22, 2017

Editor’s note: With SC17 still fresh in his mind, Andrew Jones (you may know him as @hpcnotes) looks back at the key themes from the show–both official, unofficial and orthogonal.

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 (please do provide feedback – this really helps the presenters and the SC committees). Mr Smarty-pants will have already sent all their personal post-SC emails to those who warranted specific feedback, following up on conversations in Denver while they are fresh in the minds of both parties. Ms Clever-clogs reasons that anything sent to US people before Thanksgiving will be ignored and so smugly holds back on follow-up emails until the first week of December.

The post-SC follow-ups are not limited to emails – HPC media and bloggers rush to assert their summaries of a week that is far too packed and varied to be fairly summarized. I’m no different and HPCwire has kindly agreed to publish my personal wrap-up of SC17.

Processor Wars

It got real.

Anticipated, hoped-for, hyped, and foretold for some time now, SC17 is when the competition undeniably broke free in the HPC processor space. There are now several very credible processor options for HPC systems – either available now, or baked into the roadmaps of HPC vendors for upcoming systems. Intel’s Skylake and its successors remain a strong option, GPUs (especially Nvidia) offer distinct advantages in some cases, while IBM’s Power9 and AMD’s EPYC are ready alternatives actively being considered by HPC buyers now. But it was the ARM family – notably Qualcomm and Cavium – that stole the show in terms of mindshare. The first benchmarks of Cavium’s ThunderX2, or TX2 as it became nicknamed, showed it competing well with the market leader Intel on benchmark performance. One set of benchmark charts from the GW4 Alliance was referred to several times a day across diverse meetings. EPYC and Power9 are also reputed to compete well on benchmarks. When taking pricing into account, the genuine choices for HPC processors look more open than for several years. Results from our (NAG’s) impartial HPC technology evaluation consulting for various customers support these conclusions. It will be interesting to see how this emerges into deployment reality as HPC procurements take place over the next few months.

It’s Official

Talking of processors, the rumors around the abandonment of Intel’s Knights Hill processor that have been circulating for a while were confirmed as true by Intel. (It seems to still be a secret how long those rumors have been running and the precise timing of Intel’s decisions.) However, Intel confirmed in various public statements that they still have roadmaps and plans for processors to support exascale supercomputers in the first year or two of the next decade. I’m constrained by confidentiality here, so I won’t say much more. Only that Intel’s sharing of long term roadmaps under strict NDA are very useful to those who get them, and we all understand that those roadmaps – and indeed all roadmaps – are subject to change. When helping our customers plan for large future HPC deployments, best guesses that might change are still much better than those vendors who are reluctant to share anything useful “because it might change”.

It’s Not Official

It has long been true that some of the most valuable parts of the SC week are actually those away from the official program. Vendor events on the first weekend (e.g., Intel DevCon, HPE HP-CAST, and more) have become staple parts of the SC week for some. The endless round of NDA vendor briefings in the hotels and restaurants near the convention center fill substantial portions of schedules for many of us at each SC. The networking receptions, evening and daytime, are essential to find out what is going on in the HPC world, to exchange ideas with peers, to unearth new solutions, and to spark collaborations. Sadly, the clashes of these many off-program events with valuable parts of the official program (e.g., workshops and tutorials) are getting harder to navigate. Simply put, the SC phenomena has such a richness of opportunities, it is fundamentally impossible to participate in all of it.

Airline Points

Probably the second most popular topic of conversation in Denver was not actually HPC technology. I lost track of the number of conversations I was party to or overheard on the topic of travel. Airline and hotel points, “status”, misconnects, travel war stories (I don’t just mean United vs its passengers), and so on. Some of you will know I am personally a bit of a geek on the details of a range of airline and hotel “loyalty” programs and how to get the best out of them. At first this might seem a trivial topic for a supercomputing conference wrap-up, but I mention it because it actually highlights a critical aspect of HPC. The HPC community is a global one. Much of what we achieve in HPC is driven by multi-partner and international approaches. Some of it is (perceived) competition – the international race to exascale, economic competitiveness, etc. Much of the community aspect is collaboration – we deliver better when we work together on common issues – even across areas where there might be competitive undertones (e.g., early exascale capability). Conferences and workshops are a critical element in enabling the community’s diverse expertise and experience to drive the successful delivery and scientific impact of HPC. Plenty of travel thus becomes a natural indicator of the health of the HPC community.

People

Of course, the underlying reason we travel is to meet people. Ultimately, people are the most necessary and most differentiating component of any HPC capability. For this reason, when I do HPC strategy consulting, we look closely at the organizational and people planning aspects of the HPC services, as well as the technology elements. Thus, I was pleased to see the continued emphasis on the people aspects of SC. Explicit attention to diversity in the committees, presenters, and panels. A strong education and training program (including our three tutorials – HPC finance, HPC business cases, and HPC procurement). The student cluster competition. Mentoring programs. And more. The measure of success is surely when the SC community no longer feels the need for a dedicated Women-in-HPC agenda, nor a dedicated student program, etc., because those groups feel welcome and integral to all parts of the SC agenda. And, equally, the other side of the coin is when we have every part of the week’s activities enjoying a diverse participation. However, we are a long way from that end goal now and we need a clear plan to get there, which we can only achieve by keeping the issues prominent. NAG was delighted to support the Women-in-HPC networking reception at SC17 and I discussed this with several people there. I think the next step is to put in place actions to enable all individuals (whether they associate with the diversity issues, or are early career/student attendees, etc.) to be comfortable participating in the full breadth of the week’s activities, rather than focused into a subset of events.

Onwards

Personally, I thought Denver was a great host city for SC and I look forward to returning in 2019. Next year SC18 is in Dallas – but don’t leave it that long to engage with your HPC community colleagues – there are plenty of excellent conferences and workshops before then. See you at one of the many HPC meetings in the coming months – and do reach out directly if I might be able to help with any free advice or mentoring.

Andrew Jones leads the international HPC consulting and services business at NAG. He is also active on twitter as @hpcnotes.

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