The Blueprint for the National Strategic Computing Reserve

By Oliver Peckham

October 12, 2021

Over the last year, the HPC community has been buzzing with the possibility of a National Strategic Computing Reserve (NSCR). An in-utero brainchild of the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, an NSCR would serve as a Merchant Marine for urgent computing, marshaling the United States’ HPC resources to respond swiftly and powerfully to national and global crises. Now, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) has helped the idea take another step toward reality by releasing a “blueprint” for an NSCR.

The report was prepared by NSTC’s Subcommittee on Networking and Information Technology Research and Development and its Subcommittee on Future Advanced Computing Ecosystems, incorporating the responses to a request for information (RFI) issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) last December that solicited “potential concepts and approaches for a National Strategic Computing Reserve.”


Learning from the COVID-19 HPC Consortium

The idea of the NSCR draws heavily on the experience of the COVID-19 HPC Consortium, which has supported over 100 projects through 43 members with an aggregate computing power exceeding 600 petaflops. “The positive outcomes and lessons learned from the COVID-19 HPC Consortium led to the conceptualization of the National Strategic Computing Reserve, envisioned as a coalition of experts and resource providers that can be mobilized quickly to provide critical computational resources—including compute resources, software, data, and technical expertise—in times of national or international urgent need,” the blueprint reads.

The current numbers of the COVID-19 HPC Consortium.

The COVID-19 HPC Consortium, the authors say, conveyed some key lessons: that leveraging existing processes speeds the collaborative process; that early engagement with the stakeholder community is critical; that a flexible intellectual property framework is important to ensuring impactful research; that, breaking from the COVID-19 HPC Consortium model, it is valuable to address more than fundamental research; and, perhaps most crucially, “substantial time and effort are required to make resources and services available to researchers” and, as a result, “it is critical to have a standing capability to support the proposal submission and review process, as well as coordination with service providers to provide the necessary access to resources and services[.]”

“While the Consortium has been successful and effective,” the authors conclude, “earlier coordination of priorities and reviews with NIH, FEMA, and CDC could have improved its effectiveness, particularly in the area of patient-level projects. … The ad hoc creation and operation of the Consortium had significant impacts on the workloads of the personnel involved as well as on the communities that are typically served by the resources that were diverted to address the pandemic. Moreover, the shift in focus of the resources to pandemic-related research delayed other [science and engineering] projects, putting on hold advances in the broader research ecosystem. As a result, there have been some potentially undesirable implications—for example, for long-term competitiveness—of diverting human and computing resources to emergency response.”


The blueprint for the NSCR

The authors combined this experience from the COVID-19 HPC Consortium with the responses to the RFI, which asked respondents about everything from how and when an NSCR should be activated to how an NSCR should engage in community outreach and communications. The RFI, they revealed, received responses from seven organizations and individuals, including the executive committee for the COVID-19 HPC Consortium; the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; HPE; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, among others.

“The NSCR is envisioned as a coalition of experts and resource providers … spanning government, academia, nonprofits/foundations, and industry,” the authors write, “supported by appropriate coordination structures and mechanisms that can be mobilized quickly … The NSCR blueprint comprises volunteer subject-matter experts working with computing resource providers to make advanced computing and data resources and services available to respond to crises.”

The authors detail eight principal functions for an NSCR:

  • Establishing clear policies, processes, and procedures for activating and operating the NSCR in times of crisis;
  • Recruiting and sustaining a group of advanced computing and data resource and service provider members in government, industry, and academia;
  • Developing relevant agreements with members, including provisions for augmented capacity and/or cost reimbursement for deployable resources, for the urgent deployment of computing and supporting resources and services, and for provision of incentives for non-emergency participation;
  • Developing methods and tools for making critical proprietary datasets securely available to compute platforms and researchers when needed;
  • Developing a set of agreements to enable the NSCR to collaborate with Federal agencies and industries in preparation for and execution of NSCR deployments;
  • Executing a series of preparedness exercises with some recurring frequency to test and maintain the NSCR;
  • During a crisis,
    • Executing procedures to receive project proposals and review and prioritize projects and to allocate computing resources to approved projects;
    • Tracking project progress and disseminating products (including software and data) and outputs to ensure effective use and impact; and
    • Participating in the broader national response as an active partner; and
  • Following a crisis,
    • Managing the return to normal operations of the involved resources;
    • Implementing changes from post-crisis lessons learned; and
    • Documenting experiences and outcomes.

The NSCR, of course, would include a variety of resource providers supplying everything from access to supercomputers or cloud resources to access to software stacks and datasets. The authors say that it would be “important to work … to establish necessary data-sharing processes and policies to ensure that relevant datasets are available for exercise and training purposes as well as during crisis activations.” Further, they write, a “range of incentive and/or compensation mechanisms may be considered for resource providers,” such as funding additional capacity for systems conditionally on access to a much larger portion of the system during a crisis.


Next steps for the NSCR

To coordinate both the resource providers and the users, the authors write, “standing up an NSCR Program Office is recommended, to be the overarching entity for operating the NSCR. The Program Office will implement the principal functions [of the NSCR].” For instance, they say, the office would develop policies and criteria for activating the reserve, onboarding users and coordinating among agencies.

The report estimates that this program office would cost around two million dollars a year. Developing and deploying an integrated cyberinfrastructure platform to support the dynamic federation and distribution of resources across the stakeholders in the NSCR, meanwhile, is estimated at another two million dollars per year. These costs, of course, would be significantly added to by the costs of resource acquisition, which would be entirely dependent on the quantity of resources procured.

“Increasingly, the Nation’s computing infrastructure—and ready access by experts to this infrastructure, along with critical scientific and technical support in times of crisis—is critical to the Nation’s safety, security, and resiliency,” the authors conclude. “The Federal Government’s next steps to building on the blueprint include establishing an interagency group to conduct deeper dives into the various structural and operational components of the NCSR outlined in this document; organizing community events to explore the NSCR’s role in specific emergency scenarios; and establishing the requisite relationships with other reserves as well as other entities responsible for coordinating and responding to emergencies.”

Read More

National Strategic Computing Reserve: A Blueprint (full report)

The COVID-19 HPC Consortium Looks Ahead to a ‘National Strategic Computing Reserve’

Prepare to Pivot HPC Faster Before the Next Crisis

Between ‘COVID Cabinets’ and Consortia, Summit Isn’t Done with Pandemic Research

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