No Apology for High Performance Computing (HPC)

A few months back, at one of my regular monthly CTO club gatherings here in Connecticut, an articulate speaker discussed the top three IT trends that are fundamentally poised to transform businesses and society at large. The speaker eloquently discussed the following three trends:

  • Big Data and Analytics
  • Cloud Computing
  • Mobile Computing

I do agree that these are indeed the top three IT trends in the near future – each at differing stages in adoption, maturity and growth. But these are not just independent trends. In fact, they are overlapping reinforcing trends in today’s interconnected world.

However, while discussing big data and analytics, the speaker made it a point to exclude HPC as an exotic niche area largely of interest to and (implying that it is) restricted to scientists and engineers and other “non-mainstream” analysts who demand “thousands” of processors for their esoteric work in such diverse fields as proteomics, weather/climate prediction, and other scientific endeavors. This immediately made me raise my hand and object to such ill-advised pigeon-holing of HPC practitioners – architects, designers, software engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

I am guilty of being an HPC bigot. I think these practitioners are some of the most pioneering and innovative folk in the global IT community. I indicated to the speaker (and the audience) that because of the pioneering and path breaking pursuits of the HPC community who are constantly pushing the envelope in IT, the IT community at large has benefited from such mainstream (today) mega IT innovations including Open Source, Cluster/Grid computing, and in fact even the Internet. Many of today’s mainstream Internet technologies emanated from CERN and NCSA – both organizations that continue to push the envelope in HPC today. Even modern day data centers with large clusters and farms of x86 and other industry standard processors owe their meteoric rise to the tireless efforts of HPC practitioners. As early adopters, these HPC practitioners painstakingly devoted their collective energies to building, deploying, and using these early HPC cluster and parallel systems including servers, storage, networks, the software stack and applications – constantly improving their reliability and ease of use. In fact, these systems power most of today’s businesses and organizations globally whether in the cloud or in some secret basement. Big data analytics, cloud computing, and even mobile/social computing (FaceBook and Twitter have gigantic data centers) are trends that sit on top of the shoulders of the HPC community!

By IT standards, the HPC community is relatively small – about 15,000 or so practitioners attend the annual Supercomputing event. This year’s event is in Seattle and starts on November 12. But HPC practitioners have very broad shoulders and with very keen and incisive minds and a passionate demeanor not unlike pure mathematicians. Godfrey H. Hardy – a famous 20th century British mathematician – wrote the Mathematician’s Apology – defending the arcane and esoteric art and science of pure mathematics. But we as HPC practitioners need no such Apology! We refuse to be castigated as irrelevant to IT and big IT trends. We are proud to practice our art, science, and engineering. And we have the grit, muscle and determination to continue to ride in front of big IT trends!

I have rambled enough! I wanted to get this “off my chest” over these last few months. But with my dawn-to-dusk day job of thinking, analyzing, writing and creating content on big IT trends for my clients; and with my family and personal commitments, I have had little time till this afternoon. So I decided to blog before getting bogged down with yet another commitment. It’s therapeutic for me to blog about the importance and relevance of HPC for mainstream IT. I know I can write a tome on this subject. But lest my tome goes with me unwritten in a tomb, an unapologetic blog will do for now.

By the way, G. H. Hardy’s Apology – an all-time favorite tome of mine – is not really an apology. It’s one passionate story explaining what pure mathematicians do and why they do it. We need to write such a tome for HPC to educate the broader and vaster IT community. But for now this unapologetic blog will do. Enjoy. It’s dusk in Connecticut. The pen must come off the paper. Or should I say the finger off the keyboard? Adios.

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The US Healthcare System – One Big Tax on the Economy – Beyond Costs and Operational Efficiencies – Innovation is Critical – Technology Helps.

It’s well known that the US Healthcare costs are skyrocketing. Estimates range from 15%-20% of US GDP – greater than any other developed nation in the world. Left unchecked, this will be a big burden that today largely falls on US employers and businesses. And these businesses have to pass on these costs to their customers, making them cost uncompetitive in an increasingly globalized world. I found the following recent articles very illuminating in describing the challenges in US Healthcare and the implications of globalization:

  1. The Big Idea: How to Solve the Cost Crisis in Health Care, Robert S. Kaplan and Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business Review, September 2011.
  2. The Risks and Reward of Health-Care Reform, Peter Orzag, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2011.
  3. How America Can Compete – Globalization and Unemployment, Michael Spence, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2011.

But the big question is what each of us can do individually, collectively in an organization, and in our ecosystem across organizations – nationally and globally.

On a recent weekend, on October 1, I attended a talk by Dr. Atul Gawande sponsored by the New Yorker magazine and IBM. This was preceded by an exclusive breakfast meeting with Atul. I was fortunate to be invited and I thank IBM for a very gracious invitation to this event hosted by Dr. Paul Grundy of IBM who is also President of Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative. At breakfast, I also got to spend some quality time with the publisher of the New Yorker and other doctors (all medical – not like the Poor Hungry Doctor (Ph. D.) kind, like yours truly!) who are all facing these challenges of the US Healthcare system.

During the breakfast event and the subsequent talk, much of the emphasis was on reducing costs and improving operational efficiencies in the US Healthcare system. Dr. Gawande was very effective in conveying his path breaking ideas on how checklists and coaching can greatly improve a surgeon’s performance and result in far better patient outcomes.

Dr. Gawande started with the premise that we all reach a plateau at one point or the other in our lives and careers. And as we push ourselves to become better at what we do, the marginal benefits of our efforts seem to be all for naught. So what can we do? How can we increase our operational efficiency? His recipe marries continuous learning with coaching.

I encourage everyone interested in this subject to read his recent article in the New Yorker and also his book on checklists. His book also covers other professions beyond surgeons including architects, athletes, etc. It stresses that in-addition to continuous learning throughout one’s life, a coach is an essential partner for continuous self-improvement in any profession particularly those that are knowledge based. This clearly includes mine – an Information Technology (IT) analyst and entrepreneur.

As IT professionals, our lives have become complex and is today’s harsh reality. We all have to do more with less as we all have less time and leaner budgets.  And yet we also have to do more with more as we are drowned in data, interruptions, and regulations.  This more or less is driving us nuts. Everything is escalating at a frantic rate and pace while margins continue to dwindle.  We are constantly challenged to improve every day operationally in what we do.

Part of the problem is IT itself. IT in some ways has caused this problem and I think IT is also part of the solution. I constantly ask myself these reflective questions: Is speed a virtue? Is Big Data really that useful? Is constant improvement always better?  I think the answer to these questions is the proverbial “Yes and No” which drives me further nuts. Being an engineer, I like the determinism of a precise unambiguous answer. I like the precision of checklists but clearly also appreciate the value of coaching! So it is Yes and No for me now on these philosophical issues.  

While IT has made a very positive impact on improving the operational efficiencies of healthcare, also required are process innovations (some IT-enables and others require business incentives). In fact, in response to a question from the audience, Atul gave an example of how a surgeon in his hospital was able to take a standard but lower cost surgical gauze and then cut it so that it would be better fit for purpose or tuned to task rather than using the more expensive pre-cut gauze. This adjusted process was then adopted by several surgeons in the hospital resulting in substantial savings in operational costs while improving patient outcomes. This was clearly a business process innovation!

But IT must itself be tuned to task and fit for purpose. In short IT must become Smarter. It’s what IBM calls Smarter Computing. With Watson and other related Smart IBM efforts and with fostering collaboration the healthcare ecosystem (Dr. Grundy’s efforts), IBM is providing the incentive and impetus needed to help address the challenges with the US Healthcare system. With events such as the one on Oct/1, IBM and its partners are providing the mentoring and coaching for everyone touched by the healthcare system!

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Software Everyware – Hungry or Happy?

I recently attended the IBM Innovate conference as an IBM guest analyst. At the outset, I must thank IBM – especially their outstanding Software IT analyst team – for being an excellent host and providing us a forum to get a lot of valuable technical and business information on the IBM Rational portfolio of solutions targeted at developers and the IT community. The overarching theme was Software Everyware.

As I returned back toConnecticut, this theme got me thinking. Those of you, who know me, know that I am a foodie. Those that know me better also know that not only do I relish good food, but also like to sample and customize it and get it “at a whim” when traveling or on the road. My close friends and family often think that my whole world revolves around food! And travel itineraries are purposefully built for this!

So during one of the round tables when an IBM executive painted an analogy of integrated software solutions with being Hungry and wanting food, it resonated very well with me. The scenario he painted went as follows: Imagine you are driving and you want to stop to get some food. Then using Yelp on your smart phone, you get a list of nearby restaurants serving close to what you are yearning for and you read the reviews, etc. Then using Groupon, you can check if there are any coupons that could be used, then using the GPS you arrive at this restaurant and have a good meal that makes you Happy and sated! This is great but can be better!

Now, taking this further, he said, imagine if all of this was integrated, and all you do is press a Hungry button – similar to the Staples Easy button. And voila, you get all these processes and applications integrated and you arrive at the restaurant with less manual action on your part. Perhaps with a meal ordering system integrated, you could start munching your delicious meal as soon as you arrive at the restaurant – a classic Just in Time (JIT) system! This could make you even more Happy!

Now, I thought, imagine further, let’s say you have an intelligent sensor that has stored your preferences, past recent meals, and other relevant information and can communicate with the applications/processes listed above. The sensor senses that you are hungry and the system recommends a ranked list of restaurants. You then just press the Go button and are on your way to being Happy!

So Software Everyware allows you to collaborate, integrate, and innovate! And yes, become Happy faster while minimizing manual effort!

But technology is only a tool. Paraphrasing a leading researcher from the Institute of the Future, “Businesses are becoming conversations between technologies, with humans supervising the process”. This is enabled by Software Everyware.

But innovation is not just about technology or products but rather about the careful design and optimization of the business with people, processes, policies, and partners with purpose, passion, persistence, and perspiration! This is what I witnessed at the IBM Rational Innovate conference. Beyond Software Everyware, it was also Happy Everyware!

I went in Hungry to learn and returned Happy! And I didn’t press any buttons! My world has become better!

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