Interview: IDC's HPC User Forum Racks Up Meeting #37

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This week I met with IDC’s Steve Conway at the HPC User Forum in Seattle. It’s been a long time since we worked together at Cray Research in Eagan, Minnesota, so I wanted to catch up and learn why the Forum has grown to be such a successful event for the HPC community.

insideHPC: What is the core mission of the HPC User Forum?

Steve Conway: The HPC User Forum was established in 1999 to promote the health of the global HPC industry and to address issues of common concern to users. It’s grown to 150 members. The User Forum’s directed by a volunteer Steering Committee of users from government, industry and academia, and it’s operated for the users by IDC. The User Forum holds meetings, pursues a technical agenda, and produces 20-25 IDC research and other documents a year. The current Steering Committee chair is Steve Finn of BAE Systems. The vice chair is Sharan Kalwani of KAUST.

We typically have 110 to 130 attendees per meeting, and that manageable size allows us to have intimate meetings where there’s a lot of interaction among the attendees, and between the attendees and the speakers and panelists. At a typical meeting, we have more than $1 billion of purchasing power in the room.

insideHPC: How did this event get started?

Steve Conway: Some of the biggest government, university and industrial HPC sites in the U.S. persuaded IDC to start the User Forum. These discussions happened in the late 1990s, at a time when the sites felt they were losing their individual ability to influence what HPC vendors developed. They wanted to band together to identify common requirements they could communicate to the vendors, in order to to regain more influence and make life better for themselves and the vendors. They also wanted to share with each other information about their plans and achievements and ways of operating.

insideHPC: Besides new and departing members, how has the Forum changed over time?

Steve Conway: The membership and meeting attendance have steadily grown, and our evaluation forms and anecdotal feedback tell us that the reputation of the HPC User Forum meetings has also grown, especially in the past few years.

We’ve definitely become more global in scope. We normally hold two U.S. meetings a year, and two in international locations, although this year we’ll have three outside the U.S. On October 7-8 we’ll be at HLRS in Stuttgart, and then we’ll move to SARA in Amsterdam on October 11-12, and finally on October 30 we’ll hold an HPC User Forum meeting in Beijing that will officially be the third day of the annual HPC China conference. Three of our Steering Committee members are based outside of the U.S.: Michael Resch of HLRS, Marie-Christine Sawley of ETH Zurich-CERN Group, and Sharan Kalwani of KAUST in Saudi Arabia. Jeff Broughton of NERSC and Merle Giles of NCSA also recently joined the Steering Committee.

insideHPC: You do the User Forum at different locations around the Globe. How do the meetings here in the U.S. differ from the Forums in Europe and Asia?

Steve Conway: All of the meetings share the same basic elements: talks and panels on hot and emerging challenges and opportunities, technical updates from users and vendors, and a fair amount of social interaction. The U.S. meetings are our membership meetings, so they last longer and have about double the content of the international meetings, and there’s a registration fee. Registration at the international meetings is free.

insideHPC: Language differences must make these discussions a challenge. Do you have any anecdotes to share on that topic?

Steve Conway: Just the perennial issue that Americans are rarely competent in a second language, and this leads to awkwardness in some of our meeting locations. In the meetings themselves, we’re fortunate that English is the lingua franca of HPC and science.

insideHPC: You have a lot of corporate sponsors. What’s in it for them?

Steve Conway: Of course, sponsorships provide visibility in front of the HPC community, including the buyers and funders. More important, I think sponsoring demonstrates the vendor’s commitment to the HPC market and to the hard work, especially by our user Steering Committee, in organizing these meetings. Sponsoring is also an indication that the vendor is financially healthy, which not all HPC vendors have been. Most of our sponsors give technical or other updates on their companies.

insideHPC: Why do you think users come back year after year?

Steve Conway: Because the HPC User Forum is different from other HPC meetings and conferences. The meetings are intimate enough that you can get your questions addressed and you can pull people off to the side for private discussions. Also, we have a good balance of government, academic and industry people. Some HPC meetings are weak in the industrial component. Mostly, I think people keep coming back, even if they change jobs, because we’ve formed a pretty tight community where people have gotten to know each other well. It’s a community that really welcomes new people, too. People really look forward to seeing each other and catching up at our meetings.