Scaling HPC Education

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With the explosion in artificial intelligence and machine learning, modeling, simulation, and data analytics, High Performance Computing (HPC) has grown to become an essential tool across academic disciplines. However, HPC expertise remains in short supply with a shortage of people who know how to make HPC systems work and how to use them. At September’s IEEE HPEC 2019 conference, a session chaired by Dr Julie Mullen (MIT LLSC) and Lauren Milechen (MIT EAPS) (who are involved with the MGHPCC hosted MIT SuperCloud System) provided a platform for members of local area research computing teams to share how they are scaling up HPC education in response.

In her presentation Julie Ma (Project Lead, Northeast Cyberteam Initiative, MGHPCC) presented “Northeast Cyberteam: A Workforce Development Strategy for Research Computing” describing activity within the Northeast Cyberteam Initiative, an NSF funded effort, now in its third year, to increase the effective use of cyberinfrastructure by researchers and educators at small and mid-sized institutions in Northern New England by making it easier to obtain support from expert Research Computing Facilitators outside of their immediate academic networks.

“Our Northeast Cyberteam Research Computing Facilitators combine technical knowledge and strong interpersonal skills with a service mindset and use their connections with cyberinfrastructure providers to ensure that researchers and educators have access to the best available resources,” Ma explains. “It is widely recognized that such facilitators are critical to successful utilization of cyberinfrastructure, but in very short supply. The Northeast Cyberteam aims to build a pool of Research Computing Facilitators in the region and a process to share them across institutional boundaries. At the same time, we are providing experiential learning opportunities for students interested in becoming Research Computing Facilitators, as well as developing a self-service learning toolkit to provide timely access to information when it is needed.”

Mullen and Milechen, who are both intimately involved with the day-to-day running of the MIT SuperCloud System, used their presentation to describe the development and ongoing progress of a MOOC for teaching how to write scalable code through the use of standard workflows and a SPOC (Small, Private, Online Course) for training on the specifics of using and running on the MIT SuperCloud System.

“Most HPC centers recognize the need to provide their users with HPC training.  However, the limited time and resources available make this training and education difficult to scale to a growing and broadening audience. MOOCs (Massine Open Online Courses) can provide more accessible and scalable learning paths toward HPC expertise. In our talk, we presented MOOCs and their related technologies and teaching approaches, outlining how MOOC courses differ from face-to-face training, video-capturing of live events, webinars, and other established teaching methods with respect to pedagogical design, development issues, and deployment concerns,” says Milechen.

Robert Freeman directs Research Technology Operations at Harvard Business School (HBS). His talk “Humans in Scaling Research Computing Facilitation and Education” again focused on the challenge of growing the specialized workforce needed to respond to accelerating growth in campus research computing.

“Scaling people-efforts in HPC facilitation and education is an important problem as science and research programs are no longer isolated, work-in-silos efforts; and increasing complexity on all fronts drives an increased need for a better-trained workforce for both research and support staff,” says Freeman. “A number of communities, both local and national, are working on these efforts using multiple approaches. In my talk I discussed specific themes, highlighting the institutions and organizations (both historical and ongoing) that play a part, that have met success and encourage participation, and all of which are growing opportunities to democratize and evangelize these ever-changing advanced cyberinfrastructure resources: creating communities in education, bringing HPC/HTC (high throughput computing) to all disciplines, bringing facilitation approaches to everyone, and building communities for enabling research.”

In particular, Freeman drew attention to the Campus Research Computing Consortium (CARCC) an organization seeking to develop, advocate for, and advance campus research computing and data and associated professions in response to the accelerating rate of change in the area encouraging his audience to perhaps contribute to CARCC efforts by themselves helping enrich the consortium.

Brian Gregor is a member of the Research Computing Staff (RCS) at Boston University. He used his talk “Developing HPC Skills Across the University Community” to share the experience of the BU RCS’s eight-member Applications Support team who work with the > 2,000 researchers across the university using BU’s Shared Computing Cluster.

“We teach tutorials at the start of each semester on a variety of programming topics from introductions to Linux and cluster programming to advanced programming in R and Python,” said Gregor. “In 2018 our tutorials had approximately 1200 attendees. Tutorial attendance continues to grow in 2019 with demand especially high for our set of Python tutorials.”

“Over the past four years,” he continued, “the team has become increasingly involved in teaching specialized topics for academic classes including cluster usage, HPC software, big data tools such as Spark, and other programming languages. In the academic arena, we assist in areas that include deep learning, computational biomedicine, and biostatistics, as well as a graduate data science program in the department of mathematics. As with our tutorials, the interest in our teaching at the academic level only continues to grow with each passing semester.”

To accommodate the increased demand for HPC skills education the BU team plans rollout of OnDemand for easier access to the cluster for academic classes and the research community.

In response to the increasing demand for HPC skills education and training, he said his team was developing video versions of their introductory tutorials to help meet the increasing demand and to free up time to introduce tutorials on more advanced topics. He also said that his team was starting an internship program for graduate students interested in improving their HPC skills and in learning about research facilitation.

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