Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brief Q&A with SC15 SCinet Chair David Wheeler

The following is a brief Q&A with David Wheeler, SC15 SCinet Chair from the National Center for
David Wheeler, SC15 SCinet Chair
Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois where he serves as a Senior Network Engineer.

Describe your day job:
One of the responsibilities of our team is to architect the HPC system networking.  We evaluate current and future capabilities to ensure high-performing network performance for our HPC environment.  We also collaborate with the University of Illinois to support our local researchers and serve as members of the ICCN (Inter Campus Communications Network), which provides network services around the state of Illinois for the three main University of Illinois campuses.

How/why did you become involved in SC?
I started working for NCSA in 1998 and part of my hiring package was to participate in building SCinet for SC98 in Orlando.  Little did I know what that would fully entail, but with that opportunity, I was exposed to the extent of work required to bring the network together.  My first job that year was to help lay the fiber in the exhibition hall, which catered to my detailed experimentalist nature.  In following years, I’ve also lead the SCinet Wireless Team, IT Team, and eventually the SCinet management team.

What makes SCinet unique or special?
SCinet is the fastest network in the world created by volunteers. We build it to be the fastest network in order to support all the demos, applications, and cutting-edge technology that is displayed every year during SC.  Additionally, the “fastest” network speed grows rapidly from year to year. In 2013, SCinet brought in 885 Gigabits per second of bandwidth for SC13, and in 2014, SCinet brought in 1.3 Terabits per seconds for SC14. (That’s 1.3 trillion bits of data per second—more than 100,000 times faster than an average home network speed.)

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, SCinet is also a research and education network, or R&E network. This means that in designing and deploying this network and technology, our highest priority is serving our community needs (HPC and SC’s needs). It is a mission-driven network supported purely by volunteer efforts and contributions. It is more than a “customer-client service” relationship, it’s about what can we do to push the limits. How can we build and supply the network for our community? How can we be innovative in providing a high-performance network?

SCinet is also a unique forum where volunteers come from industry, academia, and government share practices and expertise as well as try out the latest research and technologies.

What are the biggest challenges facing SCinet this year?
Building SCinet is an amazing opportunity for the SCinet team but does provide its challenges—there’s no manual for this kind of work. However that is also part of the fun. SCinet is able to test and operate the newest technologies that a lot of the enterprise networks will not see for years.

SCinet is always pushing the limits of network innovation and operations. This year SCinet is provisioning production Software-Defined Networking (SDN) circuits to the exhibit floor booths, providing smarter, dynamically manageable connections. We are very excited to see the turn out for this project.

Describe the planning required to pull off SCinet:
SCinet has an amazing amount of dedicated volunteers and vendors every year who work very hard to make SCinet come to life for the SC conference. We have more than 15 teams that comprise all of SCinet and more than 10 operational teams focusing on all aspects of setting up a network from power to cybersecurity to laying the fiber cables.

It takes a full year to plan SCinet, one week to set it up, one week to operate it, and 24-hours to tear it down. The planning starts in force for the next year the same day as tear down for the previous year. In addition to the exploratory planning that started two years before SC15, we started aggressively planning for SC15 on November 21, 2014—the very last day of SC14.

Describe the technical hardware involved (type/length of cable, computing power, etc):
SCinet will install 80-90 miles of fiber within the Austin Convention Center.  With SCinet supporting more than 10,000 attendees and 330 booths, we expect to need 15 tons of cooling and around 30KW of power at 480V.  We will again supply more than 1 Terabit of bandwidth, donated from vendors and neighboring research and education networks. 

How many volunteers and hours go into SCinet?
SCinet has more than 120 volunteers from academia, government, and industry from over 50 different countries from year to year. Counting the hours is much more difficult though. SCinet’s volunteers are driven and dedicated. Often times we will pull many late nights and do whatever we can to make sure things get done in support of the exhibitors, demos, and attendees and I can’t really put an hour amount on this effort—just a huge amount of gratitude for everyone’s hard work.

How does someone get involved in SCinet for future conferences?
We are always looking for new volunteers. We have information about joining SCinet on the SC15 website. But mainly sending an email with a statement of interest is what it comes down to.

Most of the volunteers are supported by their various organizations that contribute volunteer hours and/or equipment for SCinet. We are greatly appreciative of this and try to widely recognize our community and vendors for contributions through the SCinet Contributor program.

How do you balance heading up this impressive task with your day job and personal life?
That is truly a challenge in taking on this opportunity. I am always thankful for the family I’m blessed with and keep them as a priority.  Additionally I strive to be a model for my children and teach them that hard work is rewarding. Being a volunteer on SCinet and chairing the design of this network is certainly challenging. It is also motivating to see where efforts in my day job overlap and are enhanced by my involvement in SC and SCinet—I would not be able to serve in this role if I didn’t have such great institutional support.

I also have to thank the previous SCinet chairs, including Bill Kramer, for their guidance. One main takeaway was to get at least one thing done for SCinet every day.

I’ve been encircled by many wonderful colleagues and friends who are striving to see SCinet succeed in providing the most capable network set up in a short amount of time.

In order to say that you had a successful SC15, what do you need to happen?
SCinet really relies on its volunteers and vendor contributors to make everything happen and to have a successful year. We would not be able to do the amazing amount of work in deploying this network without everyone’s efforts and contributions. If we continue to have the momentum that we have every year, this will be a successful show and we will continue to push the boundaries and expectations for high-performance networking as always.

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