Wolfgang Gentzsch: when it comes to HPC conferences, smaller can be better

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Wolfgang Gentzsch and I were at HPCC in Newport, RI together last week. We exchanged email about his experience at this small annual gathering, and they really resonated with me. He graciously agreed to share his thoughts on the value of the small venue in our community:

The thought I want to share with you came to me when I was sitting in Eng Lim Goh’s fabulous presentation about Petascale Application: When Processors Spend More Time Talking than Working. He is SGI’s CTO, and we definitely trust him when he is drawing the current (and future) picture of multi-core processors, being more busy with communication than with computing. Presentations like this one make conferences like HPCC so popular.

The essence of my thought is that, the smaller the conference (certainly there is a lower limit) and the more focused, the better it is in many ways for the attendees. My observation with large conferences — on the other hand — is that with more than 2 parallel tracks you start feeling lost. Often, then, there are so many interesting talks in parallel, even with overlapping topics, that more often than none you miss a good one, and most importantly, you also miss talking to your fellow friends and colleagues.

Certainly, the large conferences have their benefits, too. For example, it’s more efficient for vendors to exhibit at larger events. So, one or two large HPC conferences per year, that makes sense to me. But then the conference tracks should be carefully selected and positioned within the program, so that there are no competing sessions, which is not always the case (e.g. with SC’08 and ISC’08 last year, for example). But nevertheless, those large conferences are usually very stressful, and you have to split yourself between the presentations, the workshops, the tutorials, the BoFs, the vendor tracks, the exhibition, and last but not least your personal meetings. And forget sleep….

Conferences like HPCC in Newport which I recently had the pleasure to attend (as you can see, I am now very biased), are far from being stressful. With 100 attendees, 25 HPC-focused presentations, and 10 vendors, this was almost a family meeting with selected invited speakers, presenting the latest and greatest in HPC (grand challenge applications, lots of data, visualization, multi-core, grids and clouds, green computing, etc). In my presentation about DEISA, the Distributed European Infrastructure for Supercomputing Applications, there were more attendees than I saw at other large conferences recently.

There were enough breaks (and yes, plus a few presentations not fully matching your interest) where you found time to meet your business friends. No distraction from too many activities, and from too many things going on in the little town of Newport; 60 hours together in the same (finally renovated) hotel, a great mix of hot topics, good talks, breaks, New England coffee, evening get-togethers, and the gym.

I will be there again, next year, March 16-18, http://hpc-usa.org.

I enthusiastically agree with Wolfgang; while I get a tremendous amount of professional value out of the conferences I go to each year (or I wouldn’t go), I have to say that HPCC is the one that I enjoy being at while I’m there (not just after I’ve gotten home and the swelling in my feet has gone down). Cheers to John Miguel and the High Performance Computing and Communications Council for 23 years of outstanding conferences.

Have you been to a conference or event lately? Well, most of the rest of us couldn’t go! Give back to the community by sharing what you learned, liked, or disliked about the event with insideHPC’s readers. Email me at john@insidehpc.com…I’d love to publish your reactions.