Co-Director CSCS Manno|
Named to her post in 2003, Dr. Marie-Christine Sawley became the first woman in Europe to head a national High Performance Computing (HPC) centre. Following the recent decision to share directorship with Professor Marco Baggiolini, she now concentrates her energies on leading the scientific and technological activities, overseeing the operational units and fostering the centre’s international relations.
“Directing a supercomputing centre is a challenging job. First of all, what makes the daily business of a supercomputing centre special is its characteristically large and powerful infrastructure: extreme computing power is assembled at one site and is all geared to working at the level of maximum performance. The scientific projects run at the Centre are usually highly complex and deal with tasks at the frontiers of science. There is a lot of excellent science that does not need HPC for simulation or data analysis. But for some projects it is absolutely essential to have access to such facilities.
“Analogy would be to a Formula One racing car: while you do not need to run for a race everyday, you need to be ready for competition and test drives. In this analogy the scientist drives the car during the race, while CSCS staff needs to prepare optimally the technology, to perform the test drives and to guarantee the access to the racetrack. We act like a high performance tuning shop that optimizes the installation”, says Dr. Sawley.
The role of international relations
A second characteristic is that HPC activities are practiced by a quite small community in a very competitive scene, because of the restricted number of computer centres worldwide. In supercomputing, international relations are very important and have two main functions, Dr. Sawley believes. First, they enable performance comparison and benchmarking to judge the competitiveness, and second, they are the basis for collaborations and resource sharing. Large countries, such as Germany, France or the UK, have up to three national supercomputing centres, while smaller countries, Finland and Switzerland, for instance, have just one.
In Europe, the relations among the HPC Centres are very active, and in recent years, this has yielded fruitful projects involving supercomputing often driven and supported by the EU framework programmes. According to Dr. Sawley, one of the requirements for successfully developing the international relations of a supercomputing centre is excellence and specialization. Some scientists have short term access to facilities abroad, usually through to scientific collaboration in their own fields. She adds: ”What we observe now is however of a different amplitude: we see the emergence of a tiered European supercomputing infrastructure.” By infrastructure here one must include specialized staff.
Swiss scientists can also participate fully in European Commission projects. “By contrast, we welcome foreign scientists and specialists for courses, tutorials or through visitor’s programmes. It is an exchange that stimulates us to keep up with changes in the field, if not ahead of them in selected fields. “
Europe and overseas
Practically, CSCS international relations are well distributed over Europe. “We do have excellent contacts and sometimes co-operation overseas as well, with the US and Japan.
Thanks to the depth of our experience over the last 15 to 20 years, we keep very good contacts to some of the largest supercomputing centres in the US like Oak Ridge, NERSC, San Diego and Pittsburgh for example. Switzerland can expect to see increased cooperation with India and China, as well as other emerging countries in the IT sector.”
Despite a diverse customer base, the applications still have a commonality. Customers use CSCS to run applications or use capacity that may not be possible or available anywhere at their home institutions “Our customers need results that can only be delivered using our infrastructure. At the moment, we are hosting 45 projects, plus the national weather services from MeteoSwiss, which produces results for national weather forecasts twice a day; as of next year, that will jump to eight times per day with a much higher resolution. The projects come from different scientific disciplines; chemistry, physics, material science, climatology, to name just a few.”
ETH Zurich uses about 45 percent of the resources. “We are the national computing centre, so there are projects from other national organisations, too. We have two projects at the moment with CERN, one of which concentrates on grid computing. “
How success is measured
The lifespan of most CSCS projects is two to four years. “We have indicators to identify excellent scientific projects needing HPC; the value of the scientific proposal and the impact of outcome are evaluated by expert scientists and peer reviewers; finally, CSCS bi-yearly scientific report presents the contributions from each project”, explains Dr. Sawley.
For her, supercomputing works hand in hand with the frontier of science The question then is, if supercomputing is lived on the frontier, what is its future? “The future is to aggregate more and more computing components into very large and powerful integrated systems. At present, around 100, sometimes a few 1000’s of these components are working at one time on one application. As the scientific problem becomes more complex, applications are being developed, using better algorithms and more robust techniques of programming, that are driven by the scientists themselves to use all of the components available at the same time. It is reasonable to think that in the future most scientific discoveries needing HPC will be made using systems with more than 10’000 computing elements.”
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