SC19: From SCC to SC

By Eugene de Beste, Systems and Cloud Developer/Administrator with the South African National Bioinformatics Institute, a part of the University of the Western Cape

My journey with systems and HPC administration starts with the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) of South Africa and their Student Cluster Challenge (SCC). I was involved in the third-ever challenge of this kind in South Africa and went on to represent South Africa with my team at the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) SCC in 2014, placing first. This proved to be a monumental part of solidifying my desire to continue in this field. As such, I joined my research unit as an HPC and Cloud systems developer from 2017. It is quite fitting then that the CHPC, along with STEM-Trek, would help me find my way to Supercomputing 2019 in Denver.

Eugene is second from left.

Firstly, I must thank the CHPC and STEM-Trek, specifically Bryan Johnston and Elizabeth Leake. STEM-Trek graciously supported me in receiving a registration waiver for attending SC19 (thanks to the generosity of SC19 General Chair Michela Taufer), which made everything else possible. Apart from this, if it wasn’t for the hard work of Bryan (and others from the CHPC) in terms of logistics and accommodation organisation, the others and I from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that were sponsored to go would have had a much more complicated situation to work with.

So what of the conference itself, then? In short: awesome.

I was really happy to see the range of different activities to involve myself in. There were paper sessions, workshops, tutorials, panel discussions, birds-of-a-feather (BoF) sessions and many more! My primary reason for going was networking, but I was very excited to throw my voice into some of the discussions that people were going to be having, specifically around topics such as training and outreach in systems and HPC.

For visiting interesting sessions, I took the approach of “winging it” (barring some of the critical ones). That being, I didn’t pre-plan which of the sessions I was going to attend. The reason for this was the conflicting desire to visit overlapping sessions. This leads me to my largest complaint about the conference. There are too many good sessions that are scheduled during other sessions! (Read this as a bit of tongue-in-cheek, it’s more a testament to good quality of the topics). After waking up each morning, I’d browse the pocket schedule that we were given and decide which of the talks were most aligned with my interests.

The exhibition floor was also spectacular. It was really interesting to engage with some of the vendors. It gives you a good sense of where certain technologies are being used. For example, I utilise the distributed storage engine called Ceph at my institution. I’ve spent a lot of time understanding it and know a bit about its inner workings. While touring the floor I noticed that vendors are popping up now that are offering commercial distributed storage solutions that are designed and behave in a very similar way to Ceph. This is encouraging in solidifying choices. The other neat thing about the exhibition floor is seeing new developments, such as an SSD that also contains an ARM chip for immediate data processing. Awesome stuff!

The networking opportunities at a conference like this are not to be understated. I walked away with many business cards of people that have interests that align well with mine. I was also introduced to more people than I can remember through colleagues of mine that were there. It is an invaluable experience. I am excited about future collaboration prospects!

I now look forward to reaching out to the contacts I’ve made to further mutual efforts. I intend to use the knowledge that I’ve gained around the various sessions that I’ve attended during SC to inform progression for next year at my research unit. I am currently working on a resource to try to bring research systems and software engineers in Africa together to share and collaborate. Much of the discussion that I’ve had with people in the HPC education/outreach BoFs help inform the way that I go forward with it.

Along with the trip to SC, I also took the opportunity to join some of my colleagues in driving around and exploring the beautiful areas surrounding Denver.

I am eternally grateful to those that helped make this possible. I hope that my contribution to the sessions that were hosted by my sponsors (and extra things around that) have made it worth supporting me in getting there. I hope to be back to future SCs!

Many worked together to make SC19 possible – more than:
780 volunteers, 370 exhibitors, 1,150 presenters, and a record 13,950 attendees.

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