In advance of the SC20 conference, now fully virtual and extended from November 9-19, HPCwire interviewed two of the people leading the effort to put on the 33rd annual, and first virtual, SC. In this special video edition of the This Week in HPC podcast, Christine Cuicchi, SC20 Conference General Chair, and Becky Verastegui, Conference Vice Chair, discuss this year’s unifying theme (More Than HPC), the exciting hardware they work with in their day jobs, and their most memorable SC moments. They also walk us through what attendees can expect from the expanded two-week program. Watch the webcast, listen the podcast, or if you prefer reading, a full transcript is presented below.
Tiffany Trader: Hello and welcome to a special edition of This Week in HPC produced by Intersect360 Research and distributed in partnership with HPCwire. I’m Tiffany Trader, managing editor of HPCwire, and I’m very happy to be joined today by two of the people running this year’s Supercomputing Conference. We have with us Christine Cuicchi, SC20 chair and director of the Navy DOD Supercomputing Resource Center, and we also have Becky Verastegui, SC20 vice chair and director of operations management computing and computational sciences directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Welcome both.
Let’s start with Christine. Christine, how did you get started in HPC? What is your background?
Christine Cuicchi: Sure, my background is I have a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Mississippi State University and while I was an undergrad, I had the opportunity to start working at what was called the Engineer Research Center, which is now called the High Performance Computing Collaboratory. And so I was a grid generation person, that’s all I did as an undergrad, but that really got me interested in HPC itself and so for my graduate degree, I went into computational engineering. I finished my master’s there and from there went straight to work for the Department of Defense.
Trader: What does your role with the DOD Supercomputing Resource Center (DSRC) involve and what do you find most interesting about it?
Cuicchi: I run a center a datacenter of about 70 people that help me put that on for the Department of Defense. We are one of five centers with the Department of Defense High Performance Computing Modernization Program or HPCMP. We are operated by the Naval Oceanography and Meteorology Command on behalf of the HPCMP. The most interesting thing I guess is just how hard our folks work. We are an R&D facility although we do support operational modeling for naval meteorology and oceanography. So one of the really interesting things is trying to raise our R&D profile such that we can support people that have a real need for timely model runs. The other interesting thing is that we’ve got a new supercomputer coming in, it’s a 290,000 core [HPE] Cray Shasta; it’s going to be the largest system that the HPCMP has ever procured. So we’re really looking forward to getting that on the floor and getting it started up and ready to use for about 2,000 different DOD HPCMP users.
Trader: Excellent. All right, very exciting. And Becky Verastegui, SC20 Vice Chair, how about yourself, how did you get started in HPC? Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Becky Verastegui: Well, I’ve had a bit of a winding career. I’ve worked in Oak Ridge, really my whole career and ended up at Oak Ridge National Lab and worked for Ed Oliver, who was one of the early people in the Supercomputing Conference. He was our HPC director, although we didn’t call it that back then. I worked for him, and was more on the [unclear] side at that time, and I moved over to the HPC side in 2010. I’ve been an operations manager ever since then. We have the second fastest computer in the world here so it’s pretty exciting all the time because we never know what’s going to go on with our Summit supercomputer.
Trader: Great. So the theme of SC20 this year I think might be particularly relevant: it’s “More than HPC.” So maybe you could discuss a little bit why that theme was chosen and what’s the larger meaning being conveyed. And then how the theme is reflected in the program and I think given the state of the world right now with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that this theme is particularly relevant. What’s your take on that Becky?
Verastegui: You’re right. At Oak Ridge, and across the world, COVID is a big part of the HPC world and it definitely plays into our theme “More than HPC.” Christine has an interesting story to tell about how we came up with the theme because we’ve been doing HPC Matters ever since SC14, and every year we have a different theme on that same HPC Matters track.
Trader: I’d love to hear that story Christine.
Cuicchi: Sure. So we looked back over the past I think 10 conferences to see what the themes were and we also started looking at kind of the ecosystem around HPC, not just HPC itself but the people that are making it happen the problems that we’re trying to solve. And we decided that, you know, right now, with all these new innovations, plus all these people, and all these problems that we want to get done, that was really more than HPC. So we wanted to kind of expand the focus of the conference to include all of those people, also to include a larger subset of people that maybe had not been exposed to HPC before so we really wanted to kind of hook people into looking at HPC as the larger ecosystem. You’re right about it being particularly timely. We actually posted a blog about COVID, about how the world was bringing HPC resources to bear on you know trying to stop the spread of the virus and then how to treat the disease. That was early March, and I think maybe a couple of days later we had to turn our in-person planning meeting from being in Atlanta, over to a virtual meeting and from then on, we’ve been virtual ever since. It certainly is particularly with amount of resources that are coming in to look at advancements for COVID-19 treatments, it really has been more than HPC.
Trader: Yeah, there’s certainly been an enormous worldwide response supporting research into the pandemic. We especially see that within the HPC and AI community, and it’s good to be part of that and play a role there. There’s such a diversity of interests within the HPC community. So how do you balance — and I think you spoke a little bit about this — how do you balance all those interests when you’re shaping the SC program?
Cuicchi: So I think over the years, the conference has really struck a very good balance between the technical program and Students and SciNet and Exhibits which are the main core of our conference. However, with so many innovations being made, it’s really difficult for us to kind of focus on all of them every year so each general chair tends to pick something that they’re really particularly interested in. And in my career I’ve shifted more from the technical side more to the operations side so I really wanted to focus on the state of the practice so that we can give the folks that really are behind the scenes, the system administrators the people that are building the facilities all of that kind of work, give them a real opportunity to come together and share their best practices and their knowledge with each other in a more focused fashion. So we have a special track for that this year.
Trader: And then with so much going on in artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning right now, is that a area of particular focus and attention?
Cuicchi: So I think it is. We’ve got two tracks on that for the technical program. It’s very competitive there, and I think it’s starting to make its way into the other tracks, just how it’s used to focus on the other different areas in the technical program.
Trader: And you seeing those technologies coming into the Navy DOD [DSCR]?
Cuicchi: A little bit yes. Most of the DOD’s problems are physical science problems, right, and so we’re starting to look at and beginning to use AI to treat those problems. It’s not something we have historically done, so it’s something that we’re starting to really get our foot in, in the next couple of years.
Trader: And Becky, certainly at Oak Ridge, the big systems you have now and the coming generation of systems, it seems that these AI technologies are starting to play a bigger role?
Verastegui: At Oak Ridge, we have a whole initiative on AI, and in the Department of Energy, we worked on developing a strategy last year with four town halls that had over 1,000 people that attended to develop a strategy for AI going forward. We feel like it’s sort of the next big thing after exascale.
Trader: And also, Becky, and what are what are some of the other trends in HPC that you’re seeing that you’re particularly excited about or perhaps even concerned about.
Verastegui: Exascale computing is really to me the most exciting thing because we’re moving into that era here at Oak Ridge – we’ll have an exascale computer next year, and the things that we’ll be able to do with those computers are almost limitless. I mean we’re seeing what we can do today with COVID on Summit, our current supercomputer and it’s just exciting to think about the future beyond that.
Trader: And Christine, same question to you: what what are the trends that you’re seeing as you look out right now or across the next five years?
Cuicchi: I think it’s probably trying to do more with a flat budget, at least for a lot of folks around the world. It’s really difficult to… problems are getting bigger, we need the answers more quickly. So being able to buy enough supercomputing power to treat those can certainly be a concern in addition to being able to power those things; so exascale, you know you’re looking at a lot of power so green computing is a really strong focus for several groups at this time.
Trader: As the director of the Navy’s DOD Supercomputing Resource Center, you’d have a more pragmatic look at that, keeping things in check. And Christine, let’s take a look at how did you get involved with the SC committee, what’s your experience like with SC and how did you get involved?
Cuicchi: I was first involved in 2001. I was helping Eleanor Schroeder out with the Students Program, and I kind of followed her around in Infrastructure and then I moved into the Technical Program for a few years. I had one year where I was actually the DOD booth boss, and after that I came back in as more of the operations side so I was really in the Infrastructure team for a lot of years. I was the chair for that; I was chair for Communications, and Exhibits and a few years back was the executive director, and then I went ahead and applied for general chair. It’s a three year journey as general chair so I’ve been focusing on that since 2017, but it’s really been a fantastic experience; it’s been a lot of fun.
Trader: And Becky I’ve seen your bio. You have extensive involvement in SC series over the years. You were general chair in 2007, part of the steering committee for nine years, conference vice chair, exhibits chair, finance chair, local arrangements chair, and other positions as well so could you tell us a little bit about what that’s been like, and why you are so dedicated to this series.
Verastegui: So I got started in 1998. My boss was one of the early founders of the SC conference. He got me involved when I didn’t know anything about it. That was like the tenth anniversary of the conference and he asked me to be in charge of the history exhibit and I didn’t even know what that meant. And so I really loved it. You get to get to be a part of the committee and you’re part of a new family. And that’s why I’ve stayed with it all the years, through the years, because some of my SC colleagues are my best friends too. And they’re all over the country, all over the world so that’s what keeps me engaged. It’s just a great group of people. Once a year we come together and work as hard as we can to run the conferences, and then we just keep our friendships throughout the whole time.
Trader: Yeah, yeah, it really does come back to the people and the friendships. Are there any other standout memorable experiences? Your first SC or any of the ones that you’ve been to?
Cuicchi: I can’t remember which SC it was when there was a big announcement on the floor for the Top500. I think it was that the U.S. had overtaken Japan at that time and I was kind of a baby in HPC at the time and it was really amazing to me that there was this big struggle going on for number one. The second standout experience was at SC15, the keynote speaker was Alan Alda, and he invited me on stage to carry a glass of water across the stage without spilling a drop and I did not spill a drop it was really fun to work with him for that brief period of time, but it was definitely a standout experience.
Trader: What was your secret for not spilling the water? There’s an old trick where you’re supposed to look ahead and not at the water.
Cuicchi: That’s exactly it. In aerospace engineering, you learn about… you start to do a feedback called a phugoid feedback that if a pilot starts over-correcting one way or the other, you sort of amplify the error. So if you don’t pay attention to that, if you just stare straight ahead at that table, which is what I did, and you don’t recognize whether the water’s about to spill, you’re not going to correct it, so it worked.
Trader: Sounds like a good experience. How about you, Becky, memorable experiences… I’m sure you have many, but one of one or two that you’d like to share.
Verastegui: Well this wasn’t a good experience but it’s one I’ll never forget: it was when the power went out in the city of Reno, during SC07 on like one of the last days, probably because we were draining the whole power power grid for the city of Reno so it didn’t stay out for very long but everything went down and dark. That was not a good day for me.
And then the second one was I had the opportunity to meet Seymour Cray, one of the early founders of supercomputing. He was a wonderful man, and I just feel privileged to be able to meet him. So just meeting people has made for wonderful experiences over the years.
Trader: That is wonderful. I’ve heard excellent reports about Seymour Cray from everyone that has had the good fortune to meet him.
As was mentioned SC20 has been transitioned into a virtual event. At the end of July the SC Committee made the decision and announced that it will be fully virtual. Christine, what what can attendees expect from the program this year?
Cuicchi: We’re going to put as much content out there as you would see at an in-person conference. We knew that we were going to probably have to go at least some component virtual, early on in April. And then we started planning for either a hybrid and/or a totally virtual conference and so once we made that decision to keep our attendees safe, to keep our exhibitors safe, to keep the committee safe, we knew that we were going have to make some difficult decisions but they’ve been good decisions. We have a platform virtual platform that we’re going to use. We’re pre-recording most of the content but the intent there is that while the content’s playing the actual presenters will be available via asynchronous chat to do Q&A with the audience for the entire presentation rather than maybe the last five or 10 minutes that you would normally get in an in-person conference.
There’s lots and lots of details. We have a lot of information about that on the SC website, particularly in our Frequently Asked Questions page. We’re also going to be updating that with more and more information but we are going to have a how-to-attend-SC video. We’re going to have lots of information for newcomers, for people that have never been to a virtual conference, we’re going to make sure that everybody’s comfortable with all of the information that we have.
Trader: That’s great to hear. I’m sure the community really appreciates everything you’re doing to turn this around and get them all of the features and engagement that will make this a successful event for everybody. You know one of the biggest positives of a virtual event is increased accessibility for people who for various reasons, including economic ones, are not able to attend in person. So, I think that is a positive here; is the SC committee considering having a virtual online component once in-person events are resumed?
Cuicchi: That’s a great question. My personal opinion is that there’s going to be a virtual component of almost every conference going forward for quite a while. But I suspect that we will… we’re really excited to see how far our reach this year, with it being virtual. Normally we have about a quarter of our attendees are international, and we’re hoping to increase that quite a bit. And we would hope that going forward that you’d want to take advantage of being able to do what SC is really about which is communicating the latest and the greatest with the entire community. So, that’s the hope, that it certainly will have a virtual component going forward.
Trader: Excellent. And related to that, what are some of the ways in which SC supports diversity, diversity and broader engagement of all communities? I know you have several efforts going in that direction.
Cuicchi: Right, so we have WINS, the Women in Networking at SC, and that’s a great program. We’re continuing that this year. We have what’s called HPC in the City. So we were very excited to go to Atlanta, it has a very strong HBCU presence so we were hoping to partner with students and faculty and decision makers in the Atlanta area to help bring HPC to bear on local problems and kind of show them how HPC can really impact their lives. Unfortunately, since we’re not going to be in Atlanta, we’re not able to scale we were hoping to, however we are going to deal with HPC in the City program that will be in the week, a couple of weeks prior to the conference itself. Something else is HPC Immersion, which is new for students at SC this year. It’s going to bring in undergrads from typically underrepresented areas in HPC and HPC related fields. They’ll be really immersed in the technical program; they’ll have a mentor and a guide kind of helping them through the conference. Once they’ve attended a session the guide can take them aside and say okay looks like that we’ve learned. What did you get out of this? Here’s how you might be able to get more out of upcoming sessions. So we’re definitely going to do that. And new this year, we typically track gender identity with questions that we ask attendees that we’re adding this year, the ability to self identify as an underrepresented group so we can track that going forward.
Trader: And as you mentioned, students are a major part of SC. How does SC engage students and support their involvement and newcomers as well?
Cuicchi: So, I’ll say that the Students@SC Chair, Dr. Christine Harvey, is amazing. You really should get her on your podcast. She’s probably the most energetic person on the committee. She’s expanding the Students@SC program to include several more events. We are going to have at least I think 28 hours worth of Students@SC events. There’s already a lot of Students@SC content this year on our YouTube channel. So, we are reaching out; we’re making sure that the students are still involved. They’re going to help guide people through the conference, they’re going to help us with the Q&A, they’re still going to be very very involved in the conference going forward.
Trader: Becky, what would you say to prospective SC volunteers, students or colleagues, given your long history of involvement, what would you say to folks who are thinking about joining and getting involved?
Verastegui: So I believe that for the first time we’ll be able to reach a lot more people, like you said earlier, because the registration fees are are very affordable, and we’ve actually expanded the conference so it’s not just one week, it’s two weeks long. We have over 500 different sessions and things going on so you can join any of those things, and tutorials and workshops, usually those are like on top of other things. Normally, we get faulted for having too many things going on or now we’ve spread it out over two weeks, and so people have two weeks to go to these things and also if you register, everything’s going to be recorded and so you’ll be able to watch it later at your leisure, if you like. So, we’ll have so much content. We also have a virtual exhibits program that is free to people so people can come visit our exhibitors without paying anything, and they’ll be available throughout the conference as well. Students will have opportunities that they’ve never had before, so we feel like we’re providing more content than we’ve really ever provided and it will be affordable for a lot more people.
Trader: And Christine, are there any final thoughts you wanted to share, or other messages you’d like to get out?
Cuicchi: Sure, I’ll just echo what Becky said, I think this is a pretty affordable chance for people to get all of the content at SC at their leisure because we will be providing it on demand for almost a year. We certainly want to have as many people attend the conference as possible just because we think we’ve got a great amount of content and the content is high-quality. So I would just say, register! We’re very excited about having everybody come on board and come to the conference.
Trader: Great. Our listeners can go to the SC20 website for more information and that Frequently Asked Questions page. Thank you so much Christine and Becky. It was so nice having you on today. Thanks everybody for tuning in. This Week in HPC will be back next week with my co-host Addison Snell, CEO of Intersect360 Research.