Cultures Clash as IT Takes Control of Research Systems

HPC moving into tech mainstream

TAMPA, Fla. -- The rapid expansion of high-performance computing installations within government agencies, universities and the private sector is bringing more of the systems under the control of IT departments in an effort to improve how they’re managed and reduce costs.

But the mainstreaming of HPC technology is causing a culture clash between IT staffers and the researchers who use supercomputing systems and typically have run them on an independent basis.

For instance, Matthew LeGendre, who develops performance measurement tools on a high-performance server cluster for academic research use at the University of Wisconsin, said at last week’s SC06 supercomputing conference here that management of HPC systems by IT is an issue of “convenience vs. control.”

LeGendre said some of the HPC systems at the Madison-based university are being supported by its IT department, but the help comes with strings attached. For instance, if IT managed the cluster that LeGendre uses, he wouldn’t be able to install new operating systems as he sees fit. “It’s one reason why we haven’t used our IT department to help us [with] support,” he said.

Learning to Adapt

But Sharan Kalwani, HPC infrastructure manager at General Motors Corp., said that supercomputing users and IT staffers will have to learn to work together. “HPC, now that it has become mainstream, [should] also start acting like it’s mainstream,” Kalwani said. He added that the benefits of adopting IT processes in HPC environments include improved quality, lower costs “and actually more wide acceptance” of the technology within companies.

Goran Pocina, a technical adviser at a large pharmaceuticals maker that he asked not be named, said his company has installed supercomputers at operations worldwide. The systems are managed locally by groups of researchers that don’t share applications or processes with one another.

“The cost of maintaining this is tremendous,” Pocina said, adding that he thinks the company could improve researcher productivity and cut costs if IT played a role in managing the supercomputers.

But the problem with putting IT managers in charge of HPC systems is figuring out how to apply IT disciplines and measurements “to a research community of users where quality isn’t measured by how stable the environment is but on how quickly it can adapt and change,” Pocina said.

Many of the people who build and use supercomputers and HPC clusters live in a different world than mainstream IT does, according to Pocina and other SC06 attendees.

Global Outlook

Source: IDC, Framingham, Mass.Micah Nerren, a consultant at Mach1 Computing LLC in Irvine, Calif., said he often works as a go-between to bring together IT managers and HPC groups that lack the management skills needed to run IT operations and that may not know how best to integrate their machines with business systems. “You have to educate them a bit about how to coexist peacefully ... and educate IT [about] why this is a unique user,” Nerren said.

At SC06, Kalwani conducted a four-hour tutorial intended to give HPC users an idea of what to expect when working with their IT departments. He reviewed IT management basics, such as return on investment, service-level agreements and portfolio management. Kalwani also tried to prepare users in the audience for the cultural changes that can result from working with IT.

IT managers typically “want the lowest-cost solution, and that’s a battle you find starting from Day One,” he said. IT officials may also have trouble understanding some of the goals of researchers who use HPC systems, he noted. Many IT managers, “despite the ‘T’ in IT, surprisingly are not technical,” Kalwani warned. “They’re almost bureaucratic.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technical strategy and innovation at IBM, said that as HPC installations expand further and supercomputing technologies are increasingly used for commercial applications, corporate CIOs will have to learn more about the systems.

“Traditional CIOs need more of the kinds of skills that before were only found in the HPC world,” such as an understanding of the mathematical approaches used in high-performance systems, Wladawsky-Berger said. He added that he thinks visualization capabilities and other functionality used in research settings will increasingly migrate into ecommerce systems and other mainstream applications.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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