ISC High Performance: Fueling Innovation & Fostering Family for 33 Years

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In this special guest feature, Elizabeth Leake from the STEM-Trek Nonprofit reflects on inclusivity at the recent ISC 2019 conference in Frankfurt. (Photography by Philip Loeper)

This summer marked the thirty-third ISC High Performance event (formerly the International Supercomputing Conference) in Frankfurt, Germany; the longest-running conference of its kind in the world. ISC is an annual highlight for enthusiasts of high-performance computing, networking, storage, data analytics and AI/machine learning.

Between November 2017 and June 2019, I attended 10 conferences, including two ISC High Performance events. With each, I was involved with planning committees or served as a correspondent; in fact, I’ve been involved with planning two or more high-tech conferences each year since 2008. So, it’s difficult for me to NOT notice what goes right and wrong at these events. I’m forgiving when the best laid plans run amok since I know how easily it can happen, but I’m also quick to note when things go well and give kudos when they’re due.

Having participated on the ISC Student Program and Travel Grant committees for two years, it is my perception that ISC runs like German clockwork. I haven’t seen anything go wrong. Let’s face it—there are always shoes that drop. I’ve mitigated many last-minute network, catering and facility disappointments despite everyone’s best efforts to prevent them from happening. At ISC, however, things run so well that those of us who volunteer to help the professional team can actually enjoy the program.

Of course, three decades of experience and a professional team matter, but I attribute much success to the fact that it has been held in Frankfurt since 2015. Many conferences rotate among a range of locations every year. Participants who don’t have the luxury of attending so many events may prefer when they can visit new places, and conference business is good for poorer cities. But there’s a trade-off. ISC has been able to foster relationships with the same pool of local vendors for three years. Conference centers usually have an astronomical mark-up that accounts for poor judgement in the case of out-of-town organizers, one-time, or new events. When vendors can quote with confidence knowing that the relationship will continue, and with the benefit of after-action reports from prior years, they can relax on pricing. With fewer logistics headaches, planners can then focus on more important things, like building an amazing program. A favorable experience means that attendees are more likely to return. And they do; this year, 164 exhibitors and 3,573 attendees from all domains and 64 countries were there. Attendance has doubled since 2009 and grows at a comfortable pace each year.

From left: Toni Collis (Collis-Holmes Innovations; WHPC), Kim McMahon (McMahon Consulting) and Kelly Nolan (

Such broad, international representation inherently results in a diverse cohort, but ISC doesn’t rest on these laurels. They engage Diversity Chair Kim McMahon (McMahon Consulting) to chair the Inclusivity Committee to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and heard. Women in HPC held a workshop, tutorial and networking session, which fosters affinity among early- mid- and late career female HPC professionals, and their male allies. There were 54 female speakers on the ISC 2019 program (29 who didn’t wish to disclose gender), and the conference general chair was Yutong Lu from Guangzhou Center for HPC in China. ISC 2020 will be chaired by David Keyes (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology). Such choices reflect ISC’s commitment to ensuring all are welcome and encouraged to participate.

As I traveled to Frankfurt this summer, I grew more excited with each mile and began to self-reflect as to why that might be after having attended so many conferences in recent months. While Frankfurt is a majestic city, events, for me, are not about the destination—the benefits of attending have far more to do with the people I meet, and the technical content. Obviously, the ISC venue is convenient, and the food is excellent. But there’s more to it; here’s what excites me about ISC High Performance:

ISC Communication Manager Nages Sieslack welcomes editorial professionals from many industry journals and employs talented photographers and videographers whose work makes their words sing. Browsing the ISC Flickr account hosting Philip Loeper’s photography brought back wonderful memories. Among the week’s highlights is reconnecting with Tiffany Trader (HPCwire), Michael Feldman (The Next Platform), Dan Olds (, Rich Brueckner (insideHPC), Alisa Alering and Kevin Jackson (Science Node), and other fellow HPC industry scribes. I’ve included links to some of their features throughout this article.

Thomas Sterling from Indiana University

Thomas Sterling (Director, Continuum Computer Architecture Laboratory, School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, Indiana University) delivers a talk each year; he has become part of the ISC family and fabric, and I always enjoy his presentations. Here’s a splendid recap of Sterling’s talk by HPCwire’s John Russell.

As for conference highlights, the ISC recap video is a must-see. The Science Slam event was especially entertaining, and the student program presentation by Arno Kolster (Proventia Worldwide) was motivational. My favorite ISC attendee blog was written by Glenn Lockwood (NERSC), and Arm’s Brent Gorda published a great summary on insideHPC. Everyone looks forward to the June TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful computers which is released each summer during ISC High Performance; read Tiffany Trader’s HPCwire feature.

The HPC AI Advisory Council co-hosts the annual ISC Student Cluster Competition, and I was honored to serve as a judge this year. While there were no losers among the 14 teams that competed, South Africa took first prize for the fourth time in seven years. This contest is expertly chronicled by Dan Olds (; be sure to watch his “Meet The Teams” videos in HPCwire.

The ISC student program provides first-time conference attendees with technical and interpersonal mentoring so they will develop confidence as their careers are launched—hopefully, in the HPC industry. I’ve worked with many student program managers, but Colleen Sheedy—featured in the cover photo near the center; wearing a pink shirt—is a true master, and she assembled a wonderful group of volunteers who were a pleasure to work with.

I also worked with Ms. Sheedy on the months prior to the conference on the ISC Travel Grant program with volunteer committee members Julian Kunkel (University of Reading), Marjolein Oorsprong (PRACE), and Kim McMahon (McMahon Consulting). This year’s awardees were from Colombia and Botswana—both hope to contribute to their national cyberinfrastructure and high-tech workforce development programs, and willing mentors were in abundant supply at ISC.

Photo collage provided by ISC Travel Grant Awardee Aurelio Antonio Vivas Meza (University of the Andes, Colombia).

There are many ISC staff whom I haven’t met, but I suspect all hired by the Meuer family are equally competent and a pleasure to work with. Brothers Martin and Thomas have built upon their father Hans Werner Meuer’s 28 years of experience and dedication to the global HPC community. While Hans sadly passed away in 2014, the Meuer brothers keep his legacy alive, and all who attend ISC High Performance are beneficiaries of this family’s passion for our “super” global community of practice.

Mark your calendars for ISC High Performance 2020, “Shaping Tomorrow,” June 21-25, 2020 in Frankfurt, Germany. Watch the ISC website for submission deadlines, and more.

Elizabeth Leake from STEM-Trek

Elizabeth Leake is a high-performance external relations specialist and storyteller. She founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports travel, mentoring and professional development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics scholars from underrepresented groups and regions. Through its NGO platform, Leake is an industry voice and advocate for HPC-curious scholars everywhere.

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