SC09 Debrief: software is king but people rule all

It’s become an annual tradition for John Leidel (aka, “the other John”) to write up his thoughts following SC. Submitted for your approval, the product of this year’s ritual.

Following my annual pilgrimage to the wondrous land of supercomputing tchotchkes, I spend a few days reflecting on what I saw, what I heard and most importantly, what I learned.  Regardless of how hard vendor marketing departments work to trump one another, there always seems to exist a resonating buzz around a small subset of technologies, events or HPC ideologies.  This year was no exception.

Software, software, software

SC09 saw its fair share of major product announcements.  There was the first public sighting of SGI’s Ultraviolet, Cray released details on the next iteration of the XT series, Appro remained extreme with a new Xtreme-X platform, and NVIDIA opened the kimono on Fermi.  However, it was clear by Tuesday afternoon that the hardware news was being overshadowed by the various software technologies on display.

After taking a walk through the poster sessions, this was clearly the year of accelerated computing software stacks.  The NVIDIA CUDA following was well-represented in poster sessions, BOFs and paper presentations.  I’m not sure of the exact distribution of submissions, but it certainly seemed as though CUDA dominated the technical submissions more than any other single technology.  Allinea and TotalView Tech announced debugging utilities for CUDA and EM Photonics spelled it out with LAPACK support.

GPUs not strike your fancy?  There was plenty of news for the FPGA crowd as well.  The industry buzz was definitely thick around the news from Convey.  The hybrid computing startup surprised many of us with news of progress on both the business and technology fronts: Convey  announced two dozen ships (including some very high profile customers), and showed off their financial analytics FPGA personality.  The Toal-Bewer-Wallach trifecta is HPC business savvy and it shows.  Mitrionics was also on hand to surprise quite a few folks with their latest compiler R&D.

As the week moved on it also became clear that people are starting to worry seriously about the various software implications with building accelerator-based applications at scale.  Accelerated computing technologies are beginning to move closer to the center and traditional scalar technology is beginning to become more extreme.  We, as an industry, need to begin developing more cohesive strategies sufficient to drive the industry to its next major milestone: exascale computing.

People: The Cornerstone to Success

While squeezed into coach on the flight from home to Portland, I had an interesting thought: will the global financial strife affect the attendance and quality of SC?  Quite the contrary, we had a great number of people attend the show from every niche of HPC.  In addition to the good showing, an interesting phenomenon swept through the side halls and party conversations.  “We’re Hiring.”

Through friendly conversations with the gray beards haunting the most powerful reaches of HPC, I found that many of the most coveted organizations in our industry are in desperate need of supercomputing wizards to work their black magic on a growing number of super-scale systems.  NOAA, DoE, DoD and NSF-sponsored labs alike are looking to pick up skilled individuals to operate their big ticket machines.  So why not just hire the right people?  The key phrase here is skilled.

According to those in need, the pool of truly skilled talent in our fair burg of HPC is shallow and shrinking quickly.  The individuals that have been driving the innovation in this industry for the past thirty years are continuing to do so without the bench necessary to replace them at age 65.  As such, it seems we’re retiring talent faster than its being replaced.

We should learn two things from our current situation.  First, people are the driving force behind success.  Silicon procurements, interconnects and compilers are nothing without the code ninjas and keyboard cowgirls necessary to keep the gears turning.  Second, given the amount of talent concentrated in the upper echelons of our industry, its vital for the true technologists among us to develop their mentor skills and pass on their knowledge to those below.

Until Next Year

All in all, I think SC09 was a success.  Despite the global financial crisis, we had thousands of folks brave the cold winds of Portland to attend.  As always, good food and good friends were the highlight of my trip.  I hope to see everyone next year in New Orleans for SC10.

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