Rock Stars of HPC: Bill Kramer

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Bill Kramer has spent his career finding, catalyzing, and managing change in HPC. Early in his career he helped field the first, production Unix-based supercomputer, and he has continued to work to design and commission some of the most innovative and successful computers of the past twenty years: during his career he has fielded twenty large supers, 7 of which have been in the top 5 of the Top500. Kramer’s career choices have always drawn him to our community’s leading organizations, places that were changing something fundamental about what it means to be a supercomputer center. But he isn’t about change just for the sake of change: for Kramer it is a way to make sure that he stays fresh, and does the best job he can for the people he is leading, and for the people who use his systems.

He is the kind of leader that the HPC community, and just about everyone else, needs more of: someone focused on service to a community he believes in and on getting the job done for the benefit of all.

Bill KramerToday Bill Kramer is the deputy project director and co-principal investigator for the Blue Waters project at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. This is ground zero for the first sustained PFLOPS (10+ PFLOPS peak) supercomputing center dedicated to diverse science and engineering; but it’s not really about the computer. Over the past several years Bill and his team have been focused on building the facility and designing a system that, when finally turned on next year, will probably be the largest system for open science in the world. But if you’ve been following what the Blue Waters team has been doing you’ll see that they have taken a radically different approach to the launch of this capability into the community.

Getting the system fielded is only the beginning of their efforts, not the end. The really innovative things that the Blue Waters team are can be seen in their focus on training potential users, evangelizing the machine and its capabilities, and reaching out to new disciplines that should be able to benefit from the capability. In short, they are building a community around the resource: a community of users, architects, administrators, and developers that will work together and support one another once the machine is launched to, hopefully, conduct research that will change the world.

Kramer storing a technology time capsule following S06This is the perfect place for Bill Kramer. In talking with Kramer about his accomplishments, it is clear that he is one of those people who have driven their career paths with a guided purpose. As he describes it, the common thread across all of the places he’s been in his career is that they were all setting the pace for HPC at the time.

William T. C. Kramer, PhD, started his career at the University of Delaware supporting code development for the college of engineering. He helped develop applications and visualize datasets for the college’s various research projects on systems like DEC’s PDP-10 and VAX. Some of this work was on the systems side, working on device drivers and components of the operating system. This was the early days of Unix, and U Delaware was one of the early sites on the ARPANet. This put Kramer in a position to be hands deep in the Unix kernel, making systems work with the new TCP/IP. From there he moved on to systems management, getting exposure to both the human and technical issues in running large systems for scientific users.

After a while at Delaware, Kramer started sending blind resumes out to NASA centers. “I always thought NASA was cool,” Kramer says. NASA Ames was about to field a Cray-2, the first production Unix-based supercomputer in the world, and they needed someone who knew how to run a multi-user computer system and someone with the system experience to make it all work. This was the first of the moves Kramer made into an organization undergoing change. “NASA was building a supercomputing center from the ground up, and it was a very exciting time both in terms of the organization and the technology,” he says.

In fielding the Cray-2, Kramer helped finalize several pieces of software that would eventually become staples in HPC centers around the world, from UNICOS to NQS. Eventually he moved from system engineering to development and then leadership as Ames continued to field supercomputers from Cray (the site actually tried to install an ETA-10, but ended up refusing to accept the system because it never worked). They also started experimenting with MPPs, including TMC and Intel systems, and an early IBM SP. He remembers that one of the big debates they had during his time running the high speed processing group was whether or not to allow interactive editing on the Cray. His position — in favor of interactive editing — eventually won the day, but not for the reasons you’d expect. “We argued that it made more sense in terms of the demand on system resources for users to be able to make small edits to files directly on the Crays, instead of incurring all the overhead of transferring the complete file off and then back on to the system for a small change.”

Kramer was then recruited to NERSC, another organization in the midst of tremendous change. They had just moved from Livermore to Berkeley, and they had set out to become a different kind of supercomputing center. “NERSC was focused on big science — results — rather than on just having lots of users,” he says, and that was a difference that attracted him. NERSC was also one of the first organizations to commit 100% of their production resources (“in with both feet” is how he puts it) to MPP systems in a time when vector was the norm. While at NERSC Kramer contributed to the evolution of the Cray T3E, ultimately becoming Deputy Division Director as he fielded IBM SPs and, most recently, the Cray XT4 known as Franklin, before moving on to NCSA to run the Blue Waters project.

Gates and KramerThroughout all of these very challenging assignments, Kramer has remained dedicated to volunteer service. “These are very symbiotic commitments,” he says. “Certainly the organizations benefit, and I enjoy giving back to the community. But volunteer assignments are a great way to refresh my point of view and to develop new skills that, sometimes, end up helping out professionally.” Kramer says that a lot of what he has learned about managing people has come from experience in volunteer organizations. Over the years he has served in SCUBA organizations and volunteered in schools and community theaters. He also helped start the tutorials effort and graphics special interest group of the Digital User’s Group, and has been active in SIGGRAPH. But people are probably most familiar with his service to the SC conference series, which included a year as General Chair of the Conference in 2005 when he hosted Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on the stage in Seattle.

“I try very hard to make sure I don’t get staid in my ideas. Volunteering is a great way to learn about yourself, and find new things you like to do that challenge you.”

Kramer is at the point in his career where he has the perspective to identify, and to be proud of, a few key accomplishments. His list is interesting as much for the kinds of items it contains as for the specific items themselves: facilitating the first ab initio turbulence simulation at NASA Ames, and supporting the efforts to return to flight after the Challenger disaster, the first FAA certification of an aircraft change based solely on computation, and discoveries in the search for dark matter.

What is special about this list is that Kramer doesn’t include any of the contributions he made to machines, only to discoveries the machines made possible. Unlike many managers of supercomputing centers, including myself, Kramer has managed to stay connected to the work his machines make possible. “I have always tried to make sure I kept one technical activity to keep me connected to the work that supercomputers make possible.” This, he says, reminds him why he came to supercomputing in the first place, and makes him a better center manager.

In researching this article with Bill’s colleagues and co-workers, I continually received anecdotes of his “boundless energy” and “deep commitment” along with adjectives like “focused”, “tireless”, and “dedicated.” But how does he describe his own contribution? “I think the most value I bring is in making large, complex systems work well so that people can get something done with them.”

And that, in the end, is what an HPC rock star does.


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  1. GREAT Piece! And a great choice. I knew the name – but didn’t know much about Bill Kramer. Really well done.

  2. Billy-the-K has always been a great champion in HPC. He is the epitome of a great HPC mentor.