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Supercomputing, super cool

Just got home from New Orleans where I attended my very first Supercomputing event, SC ‘10.  This is a massive, 10,000 attendee conference focused on high performance computing (HPC).  My colleague Josh Simons, HPC expert, covers the technical content in his blog and I definitely recommend you check it out.   Meanwhile, aside from the rich content at the event, I was most impressed with the emphasis on research, innovation and disruptive technologies.  In fact, VMware was honored by being accepted as first-time participant Disruptive Technologies aisle.  In the HPC world, virtualization still a very new concept and we had to submit a proposal to defend why we should be there.  Lots of VMware partners and end-users were pretty psyched to see us there.  There is clearly a demand for virtualization in this space!

One of the first things that caught my eye in the event program was the Student Cluster Competition.  Teams of students from all over the world submit proposals to participate in this program.  They work with program coordinators to secure industrial and research funds for everything from their test hardware to their plane tickets to the show.  The teams work throughout the conference to demonstrate their unique approach to a supercomputing problem.  It all culminates with a big evaluation process and the selection of a winner.  There’s good coverage of the contest here.

The conference kicked off with a special treat – Keynoter Clayton Christensen, Harvard Professor, entrepreneur, and author of several books such as The Innovator’s Dilemma.  Prof. Christensen recenty recovered from a stroke and yet he was his very dynamic, funny and insightful self, albeit humbled by the experience.  He spoke to disruptive technologies and innovation and gave many great examples of how companies have failed because of taking an incremental improvement approach to their products OR because they focused too much on what a customer asked for and not on the job the customer needs a product to do.  I could use up this whole blog to cover just this talk, so instead I recommend you check out some of Christensen’s books – they make for fun and interesting reading!

The other great part about attending SC ‘10 was hooking up with a number of faculty and researchers who are currently working with VMware on advanced research projects.  They were delighted that VMware is taking a growing interest in the field of HPC and we were just as excited to see all of the amazing work their groups are doing.  Unlike traditional industrial conferences, academia plays a huge role at SC and the university booths are as big as many of the tech companies on the convention floor.  I had a chance to hook up with the folks at Georgia Tech, Ada Gavrilovska and Karsten Schwan, Director of the Center for Experimental Research in Computer Systems (CERCS).  Both Ada and Karsten have been working with VMware on several fronts including advanced research on cloud technologies and other systems related research.  There are a lot of really cool things going on at GT!

Perhaps my favorite thing at SC ‘10 though, beyond watching a bunch of supercomputing scientists react to the liveliness of Bourbon St., was taking in the amazing capabilities of the supercomputing systems being developed.  IBM was displaying their super cool (literally) Aquasar that is one board (350 lbs) that will go into a supercomputer with multiple racks and chassis and has its own, on-board copper cooling system.  The team representing KAUST was demonstrating their haptics-based simulator that allows users to interact with a virtual model of 3D objects for things like surgical training.  Finally, the abundance of 3D glasses to allow conference attendees to take in all the GPU capabilities backed by supercomputers made it a truly interactive experience.   As we say here in Boston, wicked cool…

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