Interview: NAG's Andrew Jones on the HPC Opportunities Coming to ISC'13

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As an active blogger and HPC community member, Andrew Jones from NAG is a fixture at many HPC conferences worldwide. With ISC’13 coming up in Leipzig on June 16-20, I caught up with Andrew to get his perspectives on the conference, HPC trends, and an update on his 2013 predictions.

insideHPC: In your blog and various talks I’ve seen, it is obvious that you are very passionate about the topics of hardware and software in the HPC space. What are the issues that resonate with you in these areas?

Andrew Jones: Yes, as anyone who has encountered me at conferences or read my blogs ( and will know, I am a passionate advocate of HPC as a tool for science and economic impact – and equally passionate about ensuring that HPC is seen as a complete ecosystem of hardware, software, people, processes, etc. and not merely the hardware that is often the default focus of HPC. Clearly the hardware matters – a supercomputer offers the promise of a big performance increase over smaller computers. But the supercomputer on its own is just a device for converting money into waste heat (via some floating point units and an oversized electricity bill). The hardware needs software (applications) to turn the potential performance into a real science tool or engineering capability etc. And in turn, those applications need supporting infrastructure (middleware) to efficiently use the resources. Underpinning all of this software and hardware is the requirement for people – to design, deliver, program, etc. this complex ecosystem which can be such a powerful tool. All parts of this ecosystem need attention (and investment) in order to achieve the maximum rewards of HPC. I am lucky that I am not merely evangelizing this “software & people deliver performance” message based on faith. At NAG we have built up a significant evidence of success stories (from over 50 projects) that demonstrate that HPC expertise applied to application innovation really does deliver increased science/engineering output – much more so than investing the same effort/money in more hardware.

insideHPC: You attend many of the same HPC events around the world as I do. The other day, you mentioned at dinner that any HPC event is really not about the technical program so much but everything else around it, such as the networking opportunities, the exhibition, etc. Can you elaborate on that?

Andrew Jones: I believe the greatest potential value for most attendees is informally meeting a diverse range of fellow HPC professionals and users. Perhaps I could illustrate this by looking at the extreme – much of the obvious content of the technical program could be acquired through reading published papers or watching recordings of the conference talks, etc. However, attending the conference itself allows the possibility of a conversation with the author, or perhaps one of the other audience members inspired by the paper, etc. To me, it is that discussion inspired by the talks that is the real opportunity of HPC events. In smaller events the technical program is critical because that is where most of the attendees will spend most of their time and thus it sparks opportunities for networking. In the bigger events (e.g., SC or ISC) only a small proportion of the attendees will spend significant time in the main technical program, the rest being spent in the exhibition or surrounding side-meetings. Indeed, it is difficult to create a program of quality in every topic required to attract the breadth of attendees at such large events. At these events, the knowledge on offer comes also from a comprehensive exhibition (an often undervalued aspect of the bigger HPC events) which allows a much broader set of ideas, products and research to be offered to catch people’s attention than a technical program could do in a sensible timeframe. In my experience, catching up with existing contacts, discussing experiences with industry practitioners and experts, and creating new relationships are the key activities at HPC events that are likely to lead to beneficial collaborations.

insideHPC: We’re well into the year 2013. How well are your those HPC predictions you blogged about coming into fruition?

Andrew Jones: I said Big Data will gradually be overtaken as the buzzword of choice for the HPC community. No sign of that yet! I predicted that some new buzz-themes (needing catchy buzzwords) would emerge, specifically energy-efficient computing and ease-of-use in HPC. There are some tentative signs of this happening, especially energy-efficient computing, but I think there is still more to come this year.

I said there would be continuing discussion of GPU vs. Phi as the accelerator of choice – especially at ISC’13. I think this one is pretty much true so far, but let’s see in Leipzig!

I also predicted that the HPC community would see a strong focus on industrial HPC this year, especially engagement between centers of HPC expertise and industry users. [Note that I say “centers of HPC expertise” – it is critical that this does not mean only supercomputer centers – there is a lot of real expertise in HPC outside of the supercomputer centers – e.g., within the main HPC vendors, or specialist HPC expertise providers such as NAG, or in some cases within the industrial end users themselves.] I think this prediction has already come true, with more on the way. I hear companies increasingly seeing the potential of HPC within their business; those who have previously invested are increasing and broadening their investments; and companies are seeking interactions with centers of HPC expertise to get a step ahead of their competitors. At least in the UK, politicians are very keen to get industry using HPC and that investments are increasingly being predicated on that.

insideHPC: What will NAG be showcasing at their ISC’13 exhibit?

Andrew Jones: As always, NAG will send several staff to ISC’13. We will be available to discuss how our team of HPC software engineers can enhance customer application codes to implement better scalability, new algorithms or other innovations to get more performance and solve more complex problems. We can also help with advice on HPC strategy and procurement, and planning application development to exploit future hardware technologies.

As well as the HPC services and consulting side of our business, NAG will be showcasing the latest in our libraries products. In particular, this year we have a new release of the NAG Library (Mark 24) including new routines in optimization, FFTs, wavelets and data fitting – well over 1,000 routines in total including the existing NAG chapters. We’ll also display the NAG routines on the Intel Xeon Phi co-processor and other parallel computer technologies.

insideHPC: What is the NAG Library for SMP & Multicore?

Andrew Jones: The NAG Library for SMP & Multicore is a full implementation of the NAG Library in which a large number of the routines have been enhanced for parallel processing using OpenMP. This means they can run significantly faster on multi-socket and multicore systems, processing larger amounts of data, etc. This offers customers an easy way to achieve the performance advantage of multicore processors – simply link to the multicore version of the NAG Library instead of the serial version.

insideHPC: Why do you continue to attend and exhibit at ISC year after year? What makes this event special?

Andrew Jones: It is a HPC event that combines the best of everything. It has scale – over a thousand attendees – while somehow managing to retain the engaging small conference atmosphere of its origins. It has one of the better technical programs of the larger conferences due to the hard work by the organizers to balance well-chosen invited talks, discussion panels and peer-reviewed papers. Most importantly, the agenda, the exhibition, and the surrounding social events are all planned with excellent opportunities for networking.

At a local level, Germany is an important market for us both in both commercial and academic sectors (e.g., we have a number of large academic site licenses for our libraries), so ISC is a good opportunity to meet some of our end users.

Overall, for NAG, ISC’13 is a great place to meeting new people, to learn from them and to understand how NAG can help them with their HPC and numerical computing.