NAG’s Supercomputing History – The Early Days – A Recollection by Brian Smith

Posted on
8 Nov 2018

This November SC18 in Dallas will celebrate 30 years of the SC conference series – the world’s largest annual high performance computing event. NAG holds a rare position as one of the small handful of organizations that have exhibited at every SC since the first one in Orlando in 1988.

Over the last decade, NAG has grown to be recognized as a unique but key player in the HPC world, a rare provider of impartial expert HPC consulting and software engineering services, helping customers around the world to get best impact at best cost from their HPC. However, as longtime NAG collaborator, former colleague and Chair, Brian Smith, recounts NAG’s history with supercomputing stretches back even further …

Background

The early 70s, when NAG was collaborating with us at Argonne, had little to do with what is now known as high performance computing. However, we at the Mathematics and Computer Science Division did have some of the largest computing equipment at the Department of Energy Laboratories.

HPC Beginnings

NAG was introduced to Argonne through Jim Wilkinson while we were working on matrix eigensystem software originating with NPL's Algol procedure library. The Argonne project essentially was trying to demonstrate that you could create high quality and high-performance portable matrix eigensystem software known as EISPACK. NAG in those early days contributed many ideas for testing and evaluating this software. From there, NAG became a partner with Argonne on several projects such as LINPACK and TOOLPACK that provided software and tools for high performance machines of the time. This collaboration eventually then led to NAG's participation in an early joint effort on LAPACK, which is a combination of EISPACK and LINPACK. Of course, this software family eventually produced the HPL benchmark which is the basis of the Top500 list.

The First HPC Service

In 1993, NAG partnered with the University of New Mexico to provide User Services expertise to the DoD Maui High Performance Computing Center (MHPCC). The University had won a contract to form and develop an HPC shared resource center. NAG, as a partner of the University, posted its employee Peggy WIlliams to the Maui Center to develop and manage a User's Services organization for the Maui Center. Peggy provided valuable leadership to Maui, using the experience and expertise of the NAG organization to provide an excellent user services program at MHPCC.

From These Humble Beginnings

After the Maui contract, NAG’s software collaborations kept it involved in the growing HPC community, but NAG’s HPC services business took a break until over a decade later. In 2007 NAG won the (then) largest contract in its history to operate the UK’s national Computational Science and Engineering (CSE) Support Service, as part of the Research Councils’ HECToR project. From the start of HECToR onwards, NAG has been providing HPC support services to a range of customers around the world continuously for over a decade now, along with a long list of consulting projects. Who could have guessed NAG’s future HPC role from that first project in Hawaii 25 years ago!

About the author

Brian’s relationship with NAG began when Brian Ford, NAG Founder Director, visited the Argonne National Laboratory in June 1971 where Brian was working. Many shared activities followed including: a sabbatical at NAG Oxford, being a member of the Technical Policy Committee and establishing NAG Inc with his wife Carol. Brian collaborated on many projects including making algorithm contributions to the NAG Library. He was a member of the NAG Council, the Board of Directors, and then Chair of NAG. He remains an active and highly valued member to this day having been involved with NAG for over 45 years and was awarded the NAG Life Service Recognition Award in 2016.