November 2006 A
High Productivity Computing Systems and the Path Towards Usable Petascale Computing
Nicole Wolter, San Diego Supercomputing Center
Michael O. McCracken, San Diego Supercomputing Center
Allen Snavely, San Diego Supercomputing Center
Lorin Hochstein, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Taiga Nakamura, University of Maryland, College Park
Victor Basili, University of Maryland, College Park

1. Introduction

High performance computing, as a field, involves a great deal of interdisciplinary cooperation. Researchers in computer science work to push the boundaries of computational power, while computational scientists use those advances to achieve increasingly detailed and accurate simulations and analysis. Staff at shared resource centers enable broad access to cutting edge systems while maintaining high system utilization.

Attempts to evaluate the productivity of an HPC system require understanding of what productivity means to all its users. While each of the above groups use HPC resources, their differing needs and experiences affect their definition of productivity. This, in turn, affects decisions about research directions and policies. Because so much is at stake, measuring and comparing productivity is not to be taken lightly. There have been many attempts to define productivity quantitatively, for example, see Kuck 1 for a definition of user productivity and Kepner 2 for a definition of the productivity of a system.

Our approach avoids the problems involved in trying to quantify productivity and instead defines the productivity of a system in terms of how well that system fulfills its intended purpose. Certainly the intended purpose of an HPC system is not just to stay busy all the time, but instead to deliver scientific results. Working with the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and its user community, we have analyzed data from a variety of sources, including SDSC support tickets, system logs, HPC developer interviews, and productivity surveys distributed to HPC users. In order to better understand exactly how HPC systems are being used, and where the best opportunities for productivity improvements are, we have compiled a list of conjectures about HPC system usage and productivity (each originally suggested by experienced researchers in HPC) and have compared these to the usage patterns and attitudes of actual users through four studies. The seven conjectures are as follows:

  • HPC users all have similar concerns and difficulties with productivity.
  • Users with the largest allocations and the most expertise tend to be the most productive.
  • Computational performance is usually the limiting factor for productivity on HPC systems.
  • Lack of publicity and education is the main roadblock to adoption of performance and parallel debugging tools.
  • HPC programmers would require dramatic performance improvements to consider making major structural changes to their code.
  • A computer science background is crucial to success in performance optimization.
  • Visualization is not on the critical path to productivity in HPC in most cases.

In the discussion that follows, we evaluate each of the conjectures. After summarizing the data sources we used and how we collected them, we present our findings and try to clarify how well each of these beliefs actually stands up to the evidence.

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Reference this article
Wolter, N., McCracken, M. O., Snavely, A., Hochstein, L., Nakamura, T., Basili, V. "What's Working in HPC: Investigating HPC User Behavior and Productivity," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 4A, November 2006 A. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2006/11/whats-working-in-hpc-investigating-hpc-user-behavior-and-productivity/

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