Hartree Centre on Tour | SC23 Round Up

In November 2023, the Hartree Centre joined over 14,000 attendees at the world’s biggest international supercomputing conference, SC23. Business & Stakeholder Engagement Lead Holly Halford was our roving reporter on the ground. Here, she gives her account of the conference, following the Hartree Centre team’s activities across the week.

For many in the supercomputing world, the sight of an enormous blue bear leaning against the glass exterior of Colorado Convention Centre is a familiar one. Supercomputing, or SC, has been held in Denver on at least three occasions since I began my career at the Hartree Centre, but it was my first time seeing this iconic sight in person, so I was excited to see what this striking location had in store for our team from the UK.

Off to a great start on Day 1, we had Francesca Schiavello appearing on a panel discussion about training and mentoring the Research Software Engineers (RSEs) of the future alongside other international supercomputing centres and universities. She talked about her own career path and the benefits of mentoring:

“It’s not been a linear path – there were lots of zigs and zags in there to find my current career. It’s about saying “How do I find out what sings to my soul, and what skills do I need to get there?” Mentoring and training doesn’t always have to be a formal process, I would encourage more experienced RSEs to take new colleagues under their wing and give them the benefit of your experience. I have personally benefited from informal mentorship from various supervisors, managers and colleagues.”

Francesca Schiavello, Quantum Software Engineer

On Day 2, our Chief Science Officer Vassil Alexandrov co-chaired an all-day workshop on Scalable Algorithms for Large Scale Heterogeneous Systems with Jack Dongarra (Oak Ridge National Laboratory and TOP500 fame) & Christian Engelmann (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), while the afternoon marked the 10th Workshop on Best Practices for HPC Training and Education. The four founding members, including Hartree Centre Training & Skills Manager Nia Alexandrova, Fernanda S. Foertter (Voltron Data), Rebecca Hartman-Baker (NERSC) and Maria Ribera Sancho (Barcelona Supercomputing Centre) were given a round of applause to celebrate the 10th anniversary milestone and were acknowledged by chair Nitin Sukhija (Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania), for taking on the challenge of engaging diverse audiences with supercomputing and data science before many were even considering the issue.

Participants of the workshop shared their experiences and lessons learned from training and education projects using innovative or novel learning techniques. Some common themes included tackling the challenges of expanding the high performance computing (HPC) workforce, training and education as a tool to enable diverse, inclusive recruitment within HPC and novel accessible approaches to teaching quantum computing.

“It was a special year to know our workshop has been going for ten years – slightly longer in truth because of the pandemic – so thank you to all the participants for sharing your training and education projects and insights!”

Nia Alexandrova, Training & Education Manager

That evening, it was time to rejoin other Hartree Centre team members, who had been attending various workshops, tutorials and updates on the latest technology advances for the first two days, by attending the opening gala of the exhibition for the evening.

We located our shared exhibition booth space with our Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) colleagues from the Scientific Computing Department. It’s always rewarding to see the huge variety of STFC’s HPC, data and AI projects and programmes demonstrated visually through the variety of posters, animations and video content on the booth. Some of the highlights this year included our collaboration to advance fusion energy with the UK Atomic Energy Authority and a recent project to develop AI home-buying solutions.

The exhibition also provided us with the opportunity to build relationships with and find out more about our fellow supercomputing organisations, from both private and public sector. From my personal perspective as a communicator, this is one of my favourite parts of an event as it’s always a really interesting and insightful experience to see how organisations are communicating and presenting themselves, spot any particularly unique approaches and see what stands out from the clamour for our attention.

Sustainability at large conferences is an ongoing concern, so what I’d personally like to see is more innovation in this area from technology organisations who invest significantly into their promotional activity at this kind of large exhibition. For organisations that have the financial flexibility to experiment, swapping out some of the smaller, less reusable and straight-to-landfill plastic promotional items for more sustainable options would be welcome, as well as more innovation in booth design to ensure materials are sustainable and designed to be reusable rather than disposable.

For me the exhibition booth stand that drew my eye in this area was the Texas Advanced Computing Centre, with its main booth structure formed from reclaimed barn materials. I thought it cleverly leaned into the sense of “place” within their brand, whilst also incorporating sustainable materials into what can often be treated as a disposable asset. (On speaking to them, the team did admit it took six days to erect the structure on site – certainly not for the faint of heart!)

I’ve also always thought Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre’s approach to incorporating local heritage and culture into their own brand communications really stands out. From naming their supercomputer Setonix after the scientific name for their native marsupial the quokka (which also makes for a conveniently cute cuddly toy mascot at exhibitions) to decorating their supercomputer with indigenous art by Wajarri Yamatji visual artist Margaret Whitehurst, proving that you don’t have to break the bank to be memorable and that consistent authenticity is more powerful than you might think.

The third day of the conference brought me a breakfast meeting with our partners in the International Association for Supercomputing Centers: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ).

The goals of the recently formed association are:

  • To examine and communicate best practices for centre management
  • To identify solutions for common challenges
  • To foster communication and collaboration among centres, collaborators, and users

We’re planning some online workshops in early 2024 to help us shape the initial programme of activity for IASC, so if you work for or collaborate with a supercomputing centre or similar supercomputing research organisation, we’d love to hear from you! You can register to participate in the workshops on the IASC website.

This was swiftly followed by a panel on Research Software Engineering (RSE) in Supercomputing Centres featuring Alison Kennedy, drawing on her experience as the former director of both the Hartree Centre and Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC). Alison is currently serving as a Strategic Advisor to UK Research & Innovation.

The panel described RSEs as a bridge between scientific or industry requirements and HPC infrastructure, talked about the power of RSEs to ensure software is high quality and encouraged building respect for the profession.

“It’s about building a team with the right mix of skills you need to deliver great results, and appreciating their contribution as equally necessary to deliver the science.”

Alison Kennedy, Strategic Advisor, UK Research & Innovation

The next topic up for discussion was readiness for the uptake of exascale and hybrid quantum-classical computing in research organisations and supercomputing centres. Also chaired by Nia Alexandrova, this Bird-of-a-Feather session began with a series of interactive polls to gather audience views, followed by a panel discussion.

Potential barriers highlighted by participants included funding, deployment challenges, portability and lack of training, with solutions proposed included: maintaining awareness in the field – such as through conferences like SC23 – engaging and collaborating with other HPC experts, planning ahead and obtaining training opportunities.

I wrapped up my SC23 journey by catching up with my colleagues back at the exhibition booth and even managed to persuade a couple of them to go on camera to talk about their most recent exciting projects, so keep on eye on our social media channels for that! I hope you’ve enjoyed following me around SC23, until next year…

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