No Apology for High Performance Computing (HPC)

A few months back, at one of my regular monthly CTO club gatherings here in Connecticut, an articulate speaker discussed the top three IT trends that are fundamentally poised to transform businesses and society at large. The speaker eloquently discussed the following three trends:

  • Big Data and Analytics
  • Cloud Computing
  • Mobile Computing

I do agree that these are indeed the top three IT trends in the near future – each at differing stages in adoption, maturity and growth. But these are not just independent trends. In fact, they are overlapping reinforcing trends in today’s interconnected world.

However, while discussing big data and analytics, the speaker made it a point to exclude HPC as an exotic niche area largely of interest to and (implying that it is) restricted to scientists and engineers and other “non-mainstream” analysts who demand “thousands” of processors for their esoteric work in such diverse fields as proteomics, weather/climate prediction, and other scientific endeavors. This immediately made me raise my hand and object to such ill-advised pigeon-holing of HPC practitioners – architects, designers, software engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

I am guilty of being an HPC bigot. I think these practitioners are some of the most pioneering and innovative folk in the global IT community. I indicated to the speaker (and the audience) that because of the pioneering and path breaking pursuits of the HPC community who are constantly pushing the envelope in IT, the IT community at large has benefited from such mainstream (today) mega IT innovations including Open Source, Cluster/Grid computing, and in fact even the Internet. Many of today’s mainstream Internet technologies emanated from CERN and NCSA – both organizations that continue to push the envelope in HPC today. Even modern day data centers with large clusters and farms of x86 and other industry standard processors owe their meteoric rise to the tireless efforts of HPC practitioners. As early adopters, these HPC practitioners painstakingly devoted their collective energies to building, deploying, and using these early HPC cluster and parallel systems including servers, storage, networks, the software stack and applications – constantly improving their reliability and ease of use. In fact, these systems power most of today’s businesses and organizations globally whether in the cloud or in some secret basement. Big data analytics, cloud computing, and even mobile/social computing (FaceBook and Twitter have gigantic data centers) are trends that sit on top of the shoulders of the HPC community!

By IT standards, the HPC community is relatively small – about 15,000 or so practitioners attend the annual Supercomputing event. This year’s event is in Seattle and starts on November 12. But HPC practitioners have very broad shoulders and with very keen and incisive minds and a passionate demeanor not unlike pure mathematicians. Godfrey H. Hardy – a famous 20th century British mathematician – wrote the Mathematician’s Apology – defending the arcane and esoteric art and science of pure mathematics. But we as HPC practitioners need no such Apology! We refuse to be castigated as irrelevant to IT and big IT trends. We are proud to practice our art, science, and engineering. And we have the grit, muscle and determination to continue to ride in front of big IT trends!

I have rambled enough! I wanted to get this “off my chest” over these last few months. But with my dawn-to-dusk day job of thinking, analyzing, writing and creating content on big IT trends for my clients; and with my family and personal commitments, I have had little time till this afternoon. So I decided to blog before getting bogged down with yet another commitment. It’s therapeutic for me to blog about the importance and relevance of HPC for mainstream IT. I know I can write a tome on this subject. But lest my tome goes with me unwritten in a tomb, an unapologetic blog will do for now.

By the way, G. H. Hardy’s Apology – an all-time favorite tome of mine – is not really an apology. It’s one passionate story explaining what pure mathematicians do and why they do it. We need to write such a tome for HPC to educate the broader and vaster IT community. But for now this unapologetic blog will do. Enjoy. It’s dusk in Connecticut. The pen must come off the paper. Or should I say the finger off the keyboard? Adios.

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3 Responses to No Apology for High Performance Computing (HPC)

  1. Vijay Menon says:

    Ah, the travails of the under-appreciated scientist :). I can empathize — I started out designing nuclear reactors for a living and nobody really cared!

    But seriously. I wouldn’t bother too much about visibility among the chatterati. If HPC serves a niche but significant audience, or if it is the unseen bedrock of other areas in technology, it will be recognized in that peer group. Why hassle yourself trying to convert the rest of the joes?

    But if you really feel that HPC needs better press and recognition, you should pitch the story to the media — 15,000 practitioners doing the world’s difficult computing has a certain drama. A couple of big ticket stories in tech and mainstream media will do wonders for altering perception. Go for it, Connecticut!

  2. No apologies needed, couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, if you look at your top 3 trends, big data and cloud computing technologies are today often being pioneered by so called “exotic”, “niche” and “non-mainstream” HPC practitioners. Today, HPC technologies are being used more everyday not just by research centers like NCSA or CERN but by virtually any commercial company that designs or builds a product. HPC technologies are key to product quality and time to market of everything from jet airplanes to consumer goods. Perhaps my favorite example is Procter & Gamble’s use of HPC, http://science.energy.gov/~/media/ascr/pdf/…/Hpc_pg_072809_a.pdf, appropriately titled, Procter & Gamble’s Story of Suds, Soaps,
    Simulations and Supercomputers

  3. Pingback: No Apology HPC | insideHPC.com

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