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Changing the Face of the SC Conference Series: An Interview with SC16 General Chair John West

Over 10,000 members of the worldwide HPC community will reconvene in Salt Lake City this year for SC16. To preview what the conference has in store, we caught up with the SC16 General Chair, John West from TACC.

insideHPC: In a previous life, you started a little niche blog called insideHPC, a publication you subsequently sold to Rich Brueckner after you returned to federal service. How did that experience writing about the HPC industry affect your perspectives on this community?

John West from TACC is the General Chair of SC16

John West from TACC is the General Chair of SC16

John West: In retrospect, it was immensely beneficial. During the time that I was writing for insideHPC, I needed to maintain a global picture of the HPC ecosystem — both hardware and software as well as the vendor/consumer dynamics — in order to first understand the news that we were reporting, and then to try to offer a view of what that news was likely to mean.

Following our community in that way gave me a strong sense that the hardware side is fairly richly interconnected and has built a functioning market. It also put into perspective that both systems and libraries as well as application software have a long way to go. One can argue whether the hardware market dynamic we’ve collectively settled upon is optimizing for the right criteria, but it is in software that we still really need to improve to become a more functioning market. Specifically, HPC-enabled science is in need of improved software with more strategic, stable, long-term support.

insideHPC: What were your own top goals for SC16 and how have you done on those so far?

SC16John West: SC is, first and foremost, a technical conference designed to contribute to the professional growth of its presenters and attendees: not breaking that part of the conference is job one. Fortunately, the technical program is incredibly strong with a rich culture that has only become better with time. Our contribution to that legacy of quality is that the paper review process was, for the first time, a double-blind review. There is a solid body of research that supports the idea that all kinds of biases, from institutional to gender bias, can be effectively addressed by a double-blind process.

I’m proud that our technical program committee, led by Lori Diachin (LLNL) with an incredible amount of support from Lois Curfman McInnes (Argonne National Laboratory), Rich Vuduc (Georgia Institute of Technology), and the paper review team, were able to so successfully implement this complex process. That they did it in what turned out to be a very short time period speaks to their professionalism and dedication to SC’s quality.

Also, early on in our planning process we also knew that we wanted to continue to grow the relevance of the technical program in a way that would more directly address the needs of the HPC provider community. There is an incredible amount of innovation that happens in HPC centers and groups directly supporting communities of users that doesn’t quite fit with more academically-oriented research that is typical of the SC technical program.

In that light, Bill Kramer (NCSA) had led an effort to incorporate this content during SC11 with a special track that he called ‘state of the practice’. I wanted to build on those experiences and make a permanent home for that community inside SC. Dan Stanzione (TACC), Bill Kramer, and Lori Diachin and her team worked to recruit best practice content from HPC practitioners for inclusion throughout the program. They also ensured that these submissions were reviewed as rigorously as the more academically-focused material, but with criteria specifically adapted for state-of-the-practice content.

This was a significant effort that has resulted in workshops, panels, papers, and other technical program content that I believe specifically addresses the needs of the provider community and gives them a much needed forum in which they can begin to establish a more formal basis for developing, enhancing, and communicating best practices. This is only the first year of what hopefully will be a useful and permanent addition to the program, and future SC chairs have committed to continue to include this type of content in the SC program for SC17 and SC18.

SC16 and SC17 committees planning the conference in SLC

SC16 committee planning the conference in SLC

More broadly speaking, I wanted to ensure that SC16 had an active role in the growing discussions about diversity and inclusion in the HPC community. Building a more diverse workforce is the most straightforward solution to two critical challenges HPC faces over the next decade: the size of the workforce; and the effectiveness of the tools we develop to address our shared global challenges. The best numbers we have today indicate that the technical HPC workforce in the US is about 80% male and about 70% white (similar ratios exist outside the US, although the definition of who is majority and who constitutes the underrepresented minorities becomes more complex). We simply cannot grow as fast as we need with the quality of talent that HPC requires without including the rest of society in greater numbers.

Trish Damkroger (LLNL) has led an incredible team focused solely on developing and supporting a more diverse HPC workforce. Their efforts have resulted in conference features such as on-site childcare (a first for SC that hopefully eases the burden on two-worker or single-parent families who now won’t have to choose between professional development and their children), the creation of the SC attendee conference code of conduct, and dedicated facilities for nursing mothers. Plus, Kelly Gaither (TACC), also part of Trish’s team, is leading a pilot program to capture the imagination of computing students by engaging them in a computing challenge that uses HPC to try to understand the spread of social change.

Furthermore, SCinet expanded its successful Women in IT Networking at SC program, a collaboration between the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) and the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER). We sincerely appreciate everyone that was involved to make this important step happen.

And from our earliest planning meetings the entire SC16 team was deeply committed to growing our volunteer ranks in a more inclusive fashion and to being accountable for that commitment by making demographic information about the SC16 volunteer committee publicly available. We are the first SC conference to take this step. And here again we have collaborated with future SC chairs to ensure that this topic remains an ongoing area of focus for future conferences.

SC16 returns to Salt Lake City Nov. 13-18

SC16 returns to Salt Lake City Nov. 13-18

insideHPC: The SC conference series has a loyal following of attendees that show up year after year. What do you think it is about this show that keeps people coming back?

John West: SC is really unique among conferences in the HPC community. There is simply no other conference where you can go to talk with every major participant in the HPC vendor community, see the latest research results, get HPC-specific training from the authorities in our field, mentor that next generation of leaders, and attend workshops that will shape tomorrow’s technology agenda. There is also no better opportunity to track down that researcher you’ve been needing to collaborate with, or connect with peers in other organizations to find out the cool things they are doing. It sounds a little corny I suppose, but something special happens when more than 10,000 people come together around one topic, and the only place to have that experience in HPC is at SC.

insideHPC: You have had a number of committee positions leading up to this year as General Chair of SC16. What have you learned about this conference that surprises you?

John West: I’ve been part of the SC community of volunteers on and off since 1998, but even in nearly 20 years of volunteering I never had such a full picture of the complexity of the conference. It is truly an immense undertaking with over 600 volunteers handling the things you’d expect, such as exhibits and the technical papers and so on. And then there are areas that you wouldn’t immediately think about — like negotiations with hotels, caterers, bus companies, local utilities, and even the host city’s police force. It is humbling to know that every year so many volunteers dedicate so much of their time, energy, and talent in jobs that are critical to the success of the conference but, when done well, are completely invisible to attendees. There is an incredible amount of dignity in that.

insideHPC: Your current role at TACC involves HPC strategy for one of the most prestigious supercomputer centers in the nation. What is currently going on in the realm of technology that excites you about the future of high performance computing?

John West: HPC is a rewarding field in that it is constantly changing and always exciting. At the start of my career HPC systems in the double-digit gigaFLOPS were a big deal. In fact, we were in the midst of the phase change from vector to loosely coupled sequential processes and the beginning of the shift to MPI as a ubiquitous tool for HPC. Today we’re pushing hard for exascale, but we know enough from the past “big steps” in HPC performance to know that just getting to a specific number of operations per second is not the real goal: we have to be able to sustainably achieve that level of computing on a broad selection of real applications used by our communities of scientific and engineering users. The steps we take as a community to meet that challenge, and our willingness to look hard at the assumptions that brought us to this place in history, are to me just as interesting and relevant to our continued success as whether we meet the exascale goal at all.

pnfslcinsideHPC: In just a few weeks, SC16 will be behind you. What’s next for John West?

John West: I’m going to Disney World!

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This interview is just one of the great features in the new Print ‘n Fly Guide to SC16 in Salt Lake City. Inside this guide you will find technical features on supercomputing, HPC interconnects, and the latest developments on the road to exascale. It also has great recommendations on food, entertainment, and transportation in SLC.

Print n’ Fly Table of Contents

Download the Guide to SC16 (PDF)

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