Thursday, April 30, 2015

10 Questions with SC17 General Chair Bernd Mohr

Bernd Mohr is the first SC chair from outside the U.S.
In November 2014, Bernd Mohr was announced as the general chair for the SC17 conference, marking the first time that someone from outside the United States was selected as conference chair. Mohr attended his first SC conference more than 20 years ago and has held a number of positions on the SC planning committee over the years. He is also internationally known for his work as a performance analyst for HPC systems and has given invited talks at conferences and workshops around the globe.

He is currently responsible for user support and training in regard to performance tools at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) in Germany. Mohr started to design and develop tools for performance analysis of parallel programs as a graduate student at the University of Erlangen in Germany, and continued this in his Ph.D. work, which he finished in 1992. During a three year postdoc position at the University of Oregon, he designed and implemented the original TAU performance analysis framework

In 1996, he joined the Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany's largest multidisciplinary research center and home of one of Europe's most powerful HPC systems, a 28-rack BlueGene/Q. In addition to leading several projects at Jülich aimed at improving system performance, including the Scalasca toolset effort, he is an active member in the International Exascale Software Project (IESP/BDEC) and work package leader in the European (EESI2) and Jülich (EIC, ECL) exascale efforts. He is the author of several dozen conference and journal articles about performance analysis and tuning of parallel programs.

Looking ahead to the task of organizing SC17, Mohr said he intends to combine his work in performance analysis with the well-known German focus on efficiency. Now five months into this role, Mohr took time to answer 10 questions from the SC15 Communications Committee about his experiences, expectations and ideas as he looks ahead to chairing a conference that will draw more than 10,000 attendees from all around the world.

Congratulations – you’re the first person from outside the U.S. to chair the SC conference. As you start to plan SC17, do you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders? 
Since I learned that I had been elected chair for SC17, I’ve felt very excited one moment and then the next moment I I think, “Oh my God, why are you doing this?” Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of all these great ideas of what I want to add to the conference and what I’m thinking of changing. And the next night I can’t sleep because I’m wondering why I accepted this responsibility. It’s kind of strange.

But what’s comforting is knowing that I have enormous support from my home organization. For example, the conference requires that my home institution pays travel support so I can attend all the necessary SC planning meetings. So I had to get a letter from my manager, the director of our computing center, stating this. But he also got me a support letter from the chairman of the Board of Directors of the entire Jülich Research Center pledging his full support. It shows they really value this. And after the decision was announced, a lot of my friends and colleagues congratulated me, and that was also very comforting.

But it’s a big job: I am currently selecting my executive committee to get everything started. Next year, we will need to build up the whole 500-member volunteer committee and create the SC17 brand, which means designing the logo and setting up the initial website. I’ve been told by past chairs that in the last year leading up to the conference, it will be a halftime job for nine months and for the last three months it will be full time. I will move to the U.S. at that time to make sure I am available around the clock to solve last minute issues and to make sure SC17 is the best SC conference ever.

A scene from the SC14 exhibition floor that featured 121 international exhibitors from 26 countries.
Both on the SC exhibition floor and in the Tech Program sessions, there’s a very strong international presence and the number of international attendees is steadily growing. Your thoughts on this?
It just shows that SC is THE international conference on HPC now. It’s funny, when I go to SC, I meet more Germans than I do at any event in Germany and more Europeans than I do at a European meeting. At SC14, 25 percent of the attendees were from outside the U.S. Sixty different countries were represented in New Orleans.

I have a two-part theory about this growth, but I can’t really prove it. First, the countries outside the U.S. that have a tradition of HPC, like England, France, Germany, Japan and Taiwan, are now sending more people who are not only from the major centers. This includes staff from the regional centers and more universities. Second, those countries that don’t have such a long HPC tradition, like the other European countries or China, India, and several countries in South America, are now also participating. HPC is everywhere and they all go to SC.

Aerial view of the Jülich Research Center in Germany.
Your home institution, the Jülich Research Center, is a longtime SC exhibitor with a significant booth space. What value do you see in this?
Well, you would really need to ask my center’s director this question. For me, it’s really a brand-building exercise to help establish an image of our center. We are the leading HPC center in Europe and having a large booth allows us to showcase our results, our accomplishments and current projects. And at SC, we can show this to the whole community worldwide – the exposure is amazing.

We also want to demonstrate that there are a lot of amazing things in HPC coming from outside the U.S. – as I said, it’s a very international activity. But I’ve talked to a lot of SC attendees who have  never been to an HPC conferences outside the country, even big and well-known ones like ISC. That’s surprising to me. But by attending SC, they can learn a lot about things happening outside the U.S. and Jülich is a big player in that arena.

On his way to SC12 in Salt Lake City, Mohr and his colleagues spent a couple days exploring Arches National Park and other parks in Utah. Spending a few days relaxing before the conference can help international attendees beat jet lag.
Do you remember your first SC? What was your impression?
Oh yes. It was at SC93 in Portland. I was a young postdoc and had just moved to the University of Oregon in Eugene with my wife and our two kids, who were still little at this time. Because Portland was so close, Allen Malony at the university took a bunch of us students and postdocs to SC. The secretary found a small furnished apartment downtown for us and we slept in sleeping bags on the couch, in the beds, and on the floor. It was my first large conference – I think about 2,000 people were there.

I had only been to smaller academic conferences in Europe before that. It was amazing. This was really at the start of massively parallel computing, so besides big companies like Cray, IBM, Intel and SGI, Thinking Machines, KSR, Meiko and others were there too. You really could feel this excitement on the show floor. It was so exciting, I didn’t sleep much that week. I was immediately hooked. It was also the 25th anniversary of Intel and they held a big birthday party downtown and everyone from SC was invited. I remember, they gave out harmonicas with SC and Intel printed on them. I still have mine.

How important has your participation at SC been to your career development?
The whole activity has helped my career in two aspects. When you go to SC, there are paper and poster presentations, tutorial lessons, demonstrations on the show floor and dozens of other activities and you really learn a lot about new things, new ideas and the latest state-of-the-art developments in HPC all in one place.

And then of course, it’s the biggest networking event in the HPC space. There is no better place to build your personal network – and on an international scale! You meet people from places like Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Japan and China.

And as you know more people, you will get ideas for new project proposals and potential partners, and this can help you get funding. And all of these connections come down to SC. These connections can really help boost your career and I don’t know what I would do without them. You can’t claim to work in HPC and not go to SC.

How did you get involved with the SC conference planning committee? 
After I attended a few conferences, I began to participate by organizing a BoF (Birds-of-a-Feather session) or a workshop and it grew from there. Over the years I actually have presented over 14 tutorials at SC. You learn more about the conference and meet more people. In 2003 I was invited to be a Tech Papers reviewer. What’s different about SC is that all the reviewers, not just the chairs, meet face-to-face at a meeting in June, which exposes you to both the process and other committee members. And you often get asked to do more. We have a saying in German that you offer them a little finger and they take the whole hand. I did get pulled in, but it was my choice to accept.

What committee positions have you held over the years?
I have helped out in the Tech Paper, BoFs and Poster committees and once I’ve been a judge for the Student Cluster Competition. Over the years, I have been the Panels Chair, Tech Papers Area Chair, Posters Chair, Awards Chair, Tutorials Chair, Invited Speakers Chair and at SC13, I was Student Job Fair Chair. I was very honored in 2011 to be elected as the first European to the SC Steering Committee.

Mohr advises that those new to the conference spend time understanding the website and taking advantage of onsite resources like orientation sessions or stopping at the help desk (which is always staffed by SC veterans).
What advice would you give to someone who’s attending SC for the first time?
The first thing is to check out the resources on the SC website. There is a guide for first-time attendees and additional information for international visitors. But remember that the conference is amazingly large and has so much to offer that you can feel lost. If you are part of a larger group attending, talk to others who have been there before. If you’re on your own, try to find someone from an organization near yours and see if you can walk around with them. Talk to them before the conference on what to expect and things to look out for.

Look over the program in advance so you understand the difference between workshops, BoFs, papers, posters and panels. Also look to see if there is an orientation session for newcomers – it’s usually held on the Monday afternoon.

And here’s some advice for international visitors. If your budget and travel rules allow it, come in a few days earlier and do some sightseeing; for example, visit a nearby national park. This is fun, but it will help you too. Since the meeting is in November, it will be dark when you get up in the morning and dark when you leave the convention center at the end of the day, which doesn’t help you to get over your jet lag. If you can get outside during the day for a few days, maybe do some hiking or a lot of walking, you get tired and sleep well, and this way adjust much more quickly to the time zone. This will help you relax and beat jet lag. Just before SC12 in Salt Lake City, we went to Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah and we had a great time. In 2006, in Tampa, we went to see the Everglades and did an airboat ride.

You’ve actually worked in the U.S. at the University of Oregon and toured around the western U.S. with your family. What were your favorite places to visit?
I love the outdoors and hiking. The western U.S. and Oregon have amazing landscapes. In Europe, there are people and cars everywhere, but the western U.S. has these big, wide open landscapes. So far, I’ve been to 33 national parks in the U.S. But my favorites are some lesser-known areas in Oregon.

We went cross-country skiing around the rim of Crater Lake and rode a jet boat through Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River, North America’s deepest river gorge – even deeper than the Grand Canyon. Many times we hiked to a hidden hot spring in Oregon’s old-growth forests and sat in this natural hot tub surrounded by 2,000-year-old trees. While I was there, I actually took a community college course to become a whitewater rafting captain -- you can’t do such things in Europe!

We knew we would be there three years, so every weekend we took our kids and went somewhere. After two years, the locals began asking me about things to do and places to go! One of the most unusual was Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon. You drive on a gravel road for about three or four hours and the road suddenly stops at a more than 5000-foot drop where there is this structural fault. It’s said to be the farthest place from an interstate highway in the continental U.S.

Bernd Mohr relaxes at his home in Germany with his two beagles, Buddy and Troy.
When you’re not thinking about computing and conferences, what do you like to do in your free time?
I do a lot of traveling for my job – meetings, invited talks, quarterly reviews, conferences and workshops, so when I’m at home I really enjoy just sitting on the couch and doing nothing. I often sit there with our two beagles, Buddy and Troy. At home, they are kind of like cats because they like to be near us and sit with us on the couch or on the bed. But they are bred to be hunting dogs and follow scents, so when I take them for a walk they are always sniffing things. Other people walk or jog by with their dogs by their sides, but I have one dog on a leash pulling on my left arm and the other pulling on my right.

As you probably realize, I also like to visit remote and quiet places where I can get away from everything. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to talk with anyone unless I want to.