SC21 Was Unlike Any Other — Was That a Good Thing?

By Oliver Peckham and Tiffany Trader

December 3, 2021

For a long time, the promised in-person SC21 seemed like an impossible fever dream, the assurances of a prominent physical component persisting across years of canceled conferences, including two virtual ISCs and the virtual SC20. With the advent of the Delta variant, Covid surges in St. Louis and contention over vaccine requirements, the outlook was not so good. But, against all odds, from November 14th-19th, SC21 was indeed held largely in-person (for the vaccinated) in St. Louis, Missouri – and HPCwire was there.

The SC21 exhibit hall.

Covid complications

SC19 – the last fully in-person SC, held just as Covid quietly began to spread – had set attendance records with 13,950 attendees. Compare to today: SC21, the first major HPC conference to return post-Covid, reportedly hosted around 3,500 in-person attendees (about 25 percent of SC19). (The in-person attendees were supplemented by a virtual component that was expected to draw similar numbers.)

SC21’s exhibit hall map, similarly, shows around 170 vendor booths – a far cry from the 370 that packed SC19’s show floor. Several prominent vendors – including AWS, Intel and Nvidia – did not exhibit this year, while other heavy-hitters, notably AMD and HPE, had a robust showfloor presence. The Department of Energy, meanwhile, had a large (albeit sparsely staffed) booth, which hosted more than a dozen live-streamed talks and technical demonstrations.

SC21 had also been booked well ahead of time for St. Louis’ America’s Center, a convention center with a half-million-square-foot show floor decidedly more suited for tens of thousands – not thousands – of attendees. The exhibit hall was sparsely populated by both exhibits and foot traffic, an accidental boon for the (loosely enforced) social distancing protocols that nevertheless conferred a strange energy to the conference. The meeting rooms, similarly, seemed to generally fill just a handful of their hundred-plus seats during sessions (with the exceptions of the well-populated keynotes, plenaries and awards presentations).

Sessions at SC21 were, for the most part, sparsely attended in-person.

Understandably, behavior was clouded by uncertainty and contradictions as attendees and exhibitors struggled to navigate an in-person conference and networking amid an ongoing pandemic. A gradient of handshakes, fist bumps, elbow bumps and distanced waves persisted throughout the event. Some presenters and exhibitors trudged their way through their talks and interviews with masks on, while others removed them; food and beverage distribution stations throughout the exhibit hall and corridors complicated the mask-wearing further.

At one point on Monday, SC21 General Chair Bronis de Supinski pointed to a standing mic for questions, saying “this is the only one of these you’re going to see all week!” But in subsequent sessions, mics were sometimes passed around audiences, and the ostensible substitute for miked questions – an online Q&A system powered by Slido in the SC21 “HUBB” – often proved a source of consternation for in-person attendees. Generally, too, the hybrid conference sometimes appeared to stumble under the pressure of delivering fully on both its in-person and online components: the live-streaming technology faltered with decent regularity, and recorded sessions were sometimes left inaccessible after the fact.

On Twitter, the question of whether it was ethical to host SC21 in-person in the first place loomed over the event throughout its run, though none have yet taken to social media to report a diagnosis in the wake of the conference. [Editor’s Note: After the publication of this article, one person indeed took to Twitter to say they had heard of a person who contracted Covid at a party held during SC21.] Still, the ethical questions surrounding Covid will likely remain challenging for conferences in the coming months, particularly as the Omicron variant begins to take a foothold around the world.

Surprising successes?

But these, of course, were the difficulties – most of them foreseeable going into the conference – and there some perhaps more unexpected successes. A number of people at the conference expressed to HPCwire that the lower attendance presented – rather than a sense of emptiness – a more concentrated roster of die-hard attendees and exhibitors, and more plentiful opportunities to meaningfully interact with them. (This was reflected by the experience of HPCwire’s editors, who had the chance to speak with a wide range of exhibitors and guests, including HPC luminaries like Intel’s Raja Koduri, Riken’s Satoshi Matsuoka and Top500 cofounder Jack Dongarra.) Many smaller vendors who chose to attend were also able to steal a bit more of the spotlight, thanks to the aforementioned absence of a number of big-name companies and the generally lower number of exhibitors.

Jack Dongarra (left) and Tiffany Trader, HPCwire‘s managing editor (right).

Add, too, that SC21’s relatively muted attendance is nothing to scoff at in the wider scheme of HPC conferences: ISC 2019, for instance, drew a healthy 3,573 attendees pre-pandemic, with a corresponding 164 exhibitors – almost identical to SC21. And, for one of the first major conferences in the broader technology sector to return post-Covid, the attendance, fractional though it may have been, seemed to surprise many skeptics (and excite those who had been missing in-person events).

The quality of the programming was also well-received – particularly, again, for the in-person keynotes and plenaries. Don’t miss the keynote from “father of the internet” Vint Cerf, for instance, or the in-depth plenary on ethics and HPC featuring speakers from the University of Utah, Microsoft, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the National Science Board and Stony Brook University. Sustainability, too, had a moment at SC21, as featured in birds-of-a-feather sessions detailing the state and winner of the Green500 list and asking “can fast be green?”

And, while the Top500 winner was unchanged, SC21 was the epicenter of an earthquake that shook the HPC community: exascale is (somewhat) officially here, thanks to two now-confirmed systems in China that were detailed in the submission process for the Gordon Bell Prize and which both sat out the Top500 list. Research from one of those systems – Sunway’s OceanLight – won the Gordon Bell Prize for unprecedented simulations of quantum circuits. AMD, meanwhile, made a splash by showing off their newly-minted node for the forthcoming Frontier exascale system.

Learn more about what SC21 was like

While at the conference, HPCwire produced videos detailing what the conference was like on each day. Those can be found on HPCwire‘s Live from SC page. Watch the full recap below.

Further editorial coverage is available at HPCwire‘s SC21 landing page.


Next’s year’s SC conference, SC22, will (Omicron willing) be held in Dallas, Texas, at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center from November 13th-18th, highlighting the theme “HPC accelerates.” (SC21’s theme was “science and beyond.”) Candy Culhane, a program and project director at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is SC22’s general chair. The venue for SC23 has yet to be announced.

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