Computing Profession

HPC Every Day, Everywhere


This Saturday the 25th anniversary of the world's largest, and most influential, conference on high performance computing (HPC) opens in Denver. SC13 will bring together 10,000 HPC practitioners, managers, engineers, academics, companies, and users from around the world to focus for one week on the research, products, and impact of high performance networking, computing, data storage, and analysis on the world around us.

If you aren't directly involved in the field and rely on news coverage to stay abreast of what's going on in HPC, you might be forgiven for thinking that — after the golden days of Seymour Cray and other computing pioneers from the 70s, 80s, and early 90s — HPC is now just an international horse race, with results of the ongoing contest to build the biggest machine tallied twice a year on the TOP500 list, reported in commercial news outlets like The New York Times, and punctuated by occasional handwringing about whether the United States, Japan, or some other country is losing its technological edge.

While the outcome of any one of these races is not particularly important, the trends over time do matter. For the countries involved, sustained leadership in HPC over the long term is an indicator of a vigorous innovation infrastructure with implications for geopolitical status, economic vitality, and the health, safety, and well-being of its citizenry. As my friend Dan Reed, now at the University of Iowa, has said in testimony before the U.S. Congress, HPC is the universal intellectual amplifier.  It not only enables study of phenomena otherwise out of the reach of conventional scientific methods, but also radically reduces the costs of scientific inquiry across the board, admitting larger groups of researchers who are free to study a wider range of phenomena than the scientific enterprise could otherwise support. This is reflected in a study reported in the Journal of Information Technology Impact showing that universities that consistently make even modest investments in HPC are more competitive for research dollars, and publish more frequently.

There are numerous studies detailing the benefits of robust adoption of supercomputing for industries ranging from medical therapy to consumer goods, along with several initiatives to re-energize domestic manufacturing based in part on advances in competitiveness made possible by adoption of HPC.

But the perambulations of nation-states don't have much to do with you and me, do they? Does any of this advanced computing really make a difference to Joe and Jane Citizen as they muddle through their daily grind?

Actually, yes. If you drive a car, take medicine, use shampoofly in airplanes, watch movies, expect your washer to arrive at your door undented, have a loved one coping with Alzheimer's Disease, use a cellphone,  care about the structure and fate of the universe, or worry about providing clean drinking water for the inhabitants of the planet, then your quality of life is directly affected — improved — by HPC.

The impact of HPC is felt everywhere throughout our culture, in big ways and small, and impacts you every day. If you have a chance to come to SC13 in Denver, I encourage you to spend a little time looking for examples of the ways in which HPC is changing the world. I promise you'll find the experience richly rewarding. If you aren't coming this year, do plan to come to New Orleans for SC14. We're looking for more than a few great minds to help us change the world.

John West is the Director of the Department of Defense High Performance Computing Modernization Program (, and a member of the executive committee for SC13

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