Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fran Allen and the evolution of HPC

I had the good fortune of being able to listen to Fran Allen (IBM profile and Wikipedia entry) today. Fran pioneered a lot of work in compiler optimization and was awarded the Turing Award for her contribution to Computer Science in 2007. That makes her the first and only (till date) woman to have won the Turing Award, the highest honour in Computer Science.

It was inspiring listening to her talk about her adventures. She almost described the evolution of high performance computing, with the earliest IBM systems starting from Stretch, which was supposed to be 100X faster than the existing machines (but turned out to be only 50X faster) and was delivered to the National Security Agency. She also described some of failures she had been involved in (Stretch, since it was 2X slower than intended, and then the ACS project). What was interesting was that most of the basis of the pioneering work she described had its basis in the work she had done in these failed projects. The fact that failures are the foundations of mammoth successes is one message she clearly drove home with her optimistic outlook. She also described her work during the System 360 and the PowerPC projects.

Her appeal to computer science researchers and students was mainly about the programming models and architecture decisions revolving around multi-core, a buzz word most of us have been left confused and wondering about. This new revolution that promises to change the way we write software and exploit parallelism in our programs, is the biggest opportunity, as Fran put it!

What was also interesting was how we got to the lecture hall wading through mud in a construction site during the rain. Apparently, there are two conference halls at IISc -- one called JRD Tata and the other JN Tata. No wonder, we got to the wrong one and found that it as hosting a conference on Power Electronics. Note to self: make sure you always check the location properly before setting forth.

Other than that, have been lately busy with hacking Python for S60 (this is a brilliant idea-- having a platform agnostic scripting language!) to work on my phone and a Python based remote administration toolkit. Will post more about them soon!

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