Architecture and Hardware blog@CACM

An ICT Research Agenda, HPC and Innovation, and Why Only the Developed World Lacks Women in Computing

The Communications Web site,, features 13 bloggers in the BLOG@CACM community. In each issue of Communications, we'll publish excerpts from selected posts, plus readers' comments.
  1. Introduction
  2. From Jeannette M. Wing's "Windmills in the Water"
  3. From Daniel Reed's "HPC: Making a Small Fortune"
  4. From Mark Guzdial's "Only the Developed World Lacks Women in Computing"
  5. Authors
  6. Footnotes

Jeannette M. Wing writes about the need for a comprehensive research agenda, Daniel Reed discusses high-performance computing, and Mark Guzdial shares insights about women in computing.

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From Jeannette M. Wing’s "Windmills in the Water"

Windmills in the water were my first sight during my approach to Kastrup, Copenhagen’s airport, flying in from Zürich. Blades gracefully spinning in the air—a surprisingly serene sight. Wind power supplies 20% of Denmark’s power grid, with the goal of 50% by 2025. Denmark, a country of five million, is itself an experiment in alternative energy.

Apropos, I was on my way to Helsingør, known as the home of Hamlet’s castle, to attend an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the environment, and climate change. OECD’s mission is to help governments tackle questions that affect the global economy, society, and policy. The conference was heavily populated by high-level government officials and industry executives; I was one of a handful of academics present.

At the opening plenary roundtable, I posed this question to the audience: What are the scientific and technical challenges that the ICT research community should be working on today, in anticipation of tomorrow’s energy and environment problems? The reason I wanted government and industry officials to hear the word "research" is because I sense that nonscientists might think it’s a mere matter of money and a mere matter of the deployment of existing ICT technology to solve these problems. I don’t think so.

ICTs account for 2% of global carbon emissions, according to estimates by Gartner. So, reducing our footprint with more energy-efficient devices, computers, and data centers will have a direct effect on ICTs’ carbon footprint. Moreover, we need to look at the entire product lifecycle. And what about ICTs’ role in the other 98%? ICTs will enable smart cars, smart buildings, smart infrastructure, smart grids, and smart logistics; they will enable telecommuting, telepresence, and telemedicine. So, ICTs also have an indirect effect by helping other sectors save energy. Finally, what about systemic effects? First, algorithms, software, computational methods, computers, and networks are foundational to sensing, modeling, and simulation; used by engineers for building smart things; and used by scientists to observe and model the environment and climate; so, our science and technology will help others attain their sustainability goals. Second, ICTs are just part of a much larger system of systems: it’s the interactions and the nonlinear coupling effects of energy, the environment, and the economy that need to be modeled and understood (again, with help from ICTs).

With my question, I raised the attention of government and industry leaders at the conference to the importance of research and the role of academia in the academia-government-industry ecosystem. On the other hand, I have not seen any formal study by or for the research community that frames a research agenda for ICTs and their role in energy, the environment, climate science, or, more broadly, sustainability. This blog entry calls for the diverse readership of CACM to spark a discussion on what a comprehensive research agenda might look like.

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From Daniel Reed’s "HPC: Making a Small Fortune"

There is an old joke in the high-performance computing (HPC) community that begins with a question, "How do you make a small fortune in high-performance computing?" There are several variations on the joke, but they all end with the same punch line: "Start with a large fortune and ship at least one generation of product. You will be left with a small fortune." Forty years of experience, with companies large and small, has confirmed the sad truth of this statement.

As we all know, the computing industry is extremely competitive, and new trends and technologies have repeatedly had a transformative effect. One need look no further than the regular inductees to the Dead Supercomputer Society to see the devastating effects of the ongoing attack of the killer micros on the market for custom HPC system designs. The microprocessor performance increases over the past 30 years due to decreasing feature sizes, higher clock rates, and greater architectural complexity have repeatedly dashed the hopes of many HPC entrepreneurs.

The market lesson is that one false step inevitably leads to failure, particularly for startup companies struggling to establish a new niche in the face of commodity economics. It has never been truer than in today’s economy in which potential buyers are retrenching and evaluating each purchase with a discriminating and sometimes jaundiced eye. Recently, the HPC industry lost several established companies to merger and acquisition, due to weak market positions. We have also seen startup companies fail due to missteps and financial pressures.

This reminds me of another old analogy, which compares building computer hardware and software to playing pinball—one’s reward for playing well is the opportunity to keep playing via free games. The punishment for not playing well is equally clear; one must continue to insert quarters into the machine.

Without a doubt, we need a new generation of HPC systems, from consumer devices to exascale platforms, to drive innovation, improve health care, manage critical infrastructure, and ensure national safety and defense. The question is whether the rise of multicore and manycore chips and explicit parallelism in the commodity microprocessor and graphics processing unit markets will finally change a few of the rules of the pinball game.

I believe we are at an inflection point, where new approaches must both survive and flourish if we are to continue to deliver higher performance in effective and reasonable ways.

We cannot be complacent about the future, especially now. We must continue to innovate, even if—especially if—that means inserting quarters in the innovation machine.

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From Mark Guzdial’s "Only the Developed World Lacks Women in Computing"

The National Center for Women in Information Technology meeting at the Googleplex was probably my favorite of its meetings yet. The Academic Alliance meetings were very focused and productive, but what really knocked it out of the park for me were the great talks on cross-national studies of women in IT.

Vivian Lagesen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology presented her study of Malaysia, where the 52% of all CS undergraduate majors are female. Vivian interviewed students, department chairs (mostly female), and a dean (female). She found that Malaysians can’t understand why anyone would think computing is particularly male—if anything, they consider it more female, since it’s safe, mostly inside work "like cooking." Vivian found that the three primary influences on students going into CS were their personal enthusiasm, parental interests and wishes, and job prospects, with the last two being much more important than the first. And she concluded that the gendering of computing is constructed by the West, not at all inherent to the field.

Maria Charles of the University of California, Santa Barbara presented her take on the problem, using multinational studies. She says the problem of gender inequality is due to a belief that genders are "different but equal," and that members of different genders are so different that they might as well be from different planets. She thinks that making claims that "CS has characteristics X and Y that will attract women" only serves to highlight essentially false differences between the genders. Differences in attitudes about math and sciences between men and women are greater in the developed world than in the developing world, where women and men see math and science pretty similarly. In the developing world, computing (and math and sciences) is a great career choice, and that’s what drives interest. In the developed world, women make education and career choices as a form of self-expression, so they opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields early. She suggests that forcing all students to take more STEM classes would give them the opportunity to discover their interest and aptitude for those fields.

My approach to getting more diversity in our computing classrooms is to make the curriculum more relevant to students. An argument I get is, "We’re teaching essentially the same topics in the same way today as we did when there were more women in computing. How could the introductory curriculum matter? And if all introductory classes meet the same ACM/IEEE standards, how could the curriculum lead to differences in one part of the world than another?" I think these studies point out that students today are different, they have different goals, and developed world students are looking for something different than students in Malaysia or India. It then makes sense to do something different, if we want a different result.

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