SC18 Preview: Going Big in Dallas

By Andrew Jones (@hpcnotes)

November 6, 2018

The annual festival of supercomputing is only a few days away. Over 10,000 members of the global HPC community will gather in Dallas starting this coming weekend for the SC18 conference.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a niche area, SC is a huge event. If you leave your planning until you get to Dallas, then you won’t get the best value out of SC. In fact, if you don’t start planning at least a month prior, then you will massively hinder your ability to benefit from the huge personal and business opportunity that is SC. Even a decent sized team will struggle to attend everything the official program has to offer. On top of this, there will be a plethora of public and private meetings outside the official program, many of which are more valuable than the official program. Plus, there will be the usual flood of press releases, social media blasts, etc.

Out of all of this, what will emerge as the key themes? What are some essential things to do/attend? To help, here is the near-annual tradition of the @hpcnotes SC preview …

Have you missed the big news?

The press releases and rumors are active already – many key stories will hit the media before SC starts and these often shape the debates that occur during SC week itself, when news becomes too hard to keep up with as people rush between meetings, presentations, etc.

You’ll need to have a really big story to get any widespread attention of the attendees during SC week itself. For example, announcements related to the world’s next biggest supercomputers. We’ve had the pre-SC announcement of the NERSC-9 supercomputer as an AMD based Cray system. If the CORAL2 winners were announced (or widely gossiped) then that would catch attention, as would a new Top10 non-US supercomputer, or large wins for unexpected vendors, etc.

Such rumors are circulating, and if the rumors are to be believed, one significant vendor might be a notable by their near-absence, and one vendor that many dismissed might be looking like a safer bet. However, you’ll have to wait until you get to Dallas to find out more! (Or try to get me to be indiscrete on Twitter or LinkedIn.)

SC doesn’t start on Monday

The SC gala opening reception might be Monday night, but a huge chunk of the valuable opportunities of SC week are well before this. Monday itself has the excellent tutorials and workshops program. Sunday is the same. In fact, I’d argue that often the Sunday & Monday programs are more valuable – technically and for your career – than the Tuesday thru Thursday agenda. Saturday, Friday, Thursday (working backwards from SC!) usually have vendor arranged semi-private events, many of which can be very useful in both content and networking opportunities.

Some people are already on their way to Dallas today to get the best value out of the SC festival. Most will arrive over the weekend. Some on Monday. Arriving later than Monday is like turning up for the closing credits of the movie. Indeed, as thousands of HPC people make their way to Dallas, there will inevitably be encounters during the travel – and these can be highly useful conversations – from quick hellos to save time in Dallas, to career defining discrete chats, uncovering new contacts, etc.

It’s all about the CPU

Right, we’ve got this far, we can’t ignore the topic any longer. Yes, however much the HPC community talks about people, software, whole system, user interfaces, etc. – given the slightest trigger, we all descend into focusing on the processors. Intel vs whoever. And, the whoevers are now really loud.

Intel and AMD have been busy announcing plans in the run up to SC. Intel’s recent roadmap shuffles haven’t been handled well, and their announcement of a Cascade Lake two-in-a-box CPU wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm by the HPC world, with concerns over cost, power, etc. However, Intel’s Skylake is still winning the lion’s share of deals for near-term delivery. AMD’s EPYC Zen2 or ‘Rome’ looks promising in theoretical performance and cost for future systems, but application benchmarks and software ecosystems will be key.

Answering the question of which processor to buy next will be one of the top goals for many attendees at SC18. In fact, understanding the opportunities and risks around future processors has been a vibrant topic in the HPC world over the last year or so. Our HPC consulting team has been kept busy running application benchmarks and conducting risk evaluations for numerous customers – HPC buyers from industry, research labs, plus some vendors, to inform the planning. Who wins? Depending on your application mix, risk tolerance, software situation, etc. any of the main players could emerge as the winner for you – EPYC, Xeon, Power9, ThunderX2, Volta, etc. I’ve seen enough real data to believe a clear trend will emerge over the next year or so, but I’ll save that prediction for a post-SC article.

Pick of the agenda

Gossip is great, but what to actually attend in Dallas? Here are my picks of the SC week’s agenda.

Sunday 11th.

1x Workshop ‘Women in HPC’ – excellent networking opportunities, great technical content, top career advice, and welcoming to all; and 1x Tutorial ‘InfiniBand, Omni-Path, and High-Speed Ethernet for Beginners’ – it might be seen as a niche technical area but networks are key to what we do in HPC.

Monday 12th.

2x Tutorials ‘The Business of HPC: TCO, Funding Models, Metrics, Value, and More’ and ‘Procurement and Commissioning of HPC Systems’ – the only sensible way to spend your Monday and easily one of the best value activities all week! 🙂

If you really have to miss my tutorials, then you won’t regret attending the keynote talk on the student agenda ‘The Computing Hidden in Everyday Things’ by Thomas Lange – one of the most gifted speakers in the art of explaining the value and impact of HPC.

Tuesday 13th.

Tuesday’s 8.30am keynote ‘Explore How to Deploy the Unruly Power of Machine, Platform, and Crowd’ addresses important themes about how the technology discussed at SC – HPC, ML, etc. – fits into the real world of people.

The 10.30am panel ‘HPC in Cloud or Cloud in HPC: Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation’ looks interesting (another hot topic of our consulting work over the recent times).

Wednesday 14th and Thursday 15th.

The HPC Impact Showcase has a great agenda and I’d recommend attending this if possible. And not just because several of the speakers are customers of my consulting services! The use of HPC in industry is under-reported (mostly due to confidentiality) so take any opportunity to find out more about how industry uses just as much HPC as the public research labs and universities. Importantly, you can also learn where industry is ahead of academia and the national labs.


You can’t seriously have got this far along the SC18 journey without noticing that SC18 is the 30th anniversary of the first SC. There will be celebrations, awards, history displays, etc. I’d like to set you each a task though. What can we learn from how the technology, business and people of HPC has changed in 30 years? What lessons can we apply to the next 30 years? Or even to the next five? Discuss it at SC18 and come home with a vision. Share your learnings and hopes on social media (feel free to tag me, @hpcnotes) and other community platforms. Let’s use our rich history to help optimize our future.


Just like AI, quantum computing, and GPUs, cloud hogs HPC media attention out of proportion to actual usage. Cloud will be a big topic at SC18. And rightly so. Cloud won’t replace on-premise HPC any time soon. Traditional HPC solutions win on total cost, performance, etc. in plenty of cases. But, slowly, the cloud providers are accepting the truth about the economics of HPC and are adjusting their offerings to win on business value (and eventually on cost too). Cloud is probably on the downward slope of the hype curve. But cloud will eventually become a (the) leading means of deploying HPC capacity in most scenarios. That day is close enough that it should be in your planning scope. If you are a buyer, how will you evaluate cloud against traditional options without bias (either way)? As a user, what is your plan to get skilled up? As a developer, what changes are required to your code base and your development methods? If you are a cloud provider, what is your plan to engage the HPC market in their own terms, rather than as just another IT segment?

In Dallas

I’m looking forward to an intense and valuable week in Dallas. If you see me around SC (or on the journey there), please feel free to say hello, trade gossip (I won’t break confidences though), share travel stories, argue with anything I’ve written here, or ask for opinions on any aspect of HPC.

Hope you have a productive SC18!

About the Author

Andrew Jones has over 20 years experience in HPC across industry, government and academia, and is acknowledged as one of the leading voices on the business and people aspects of HPC. Andrew is VP of NAG’s international impartial HPC consulting practice, which is trusted by clients around the world to provide expert advice on strategy, technology and software performance for HPC and cloud. Andrew is active on twitter as @hpcnotes.

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