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Getting Users Up To Speed: Q&A with Nancy Wilkins-Diehr

Nancy Wilkins-Diehr is Director of Consulting, Training & Documentation at SDSC. The Consulting and Training Group provides front-line support for SDSC's production computing resources. Nancy received her Bachelor's degree from Boston College in Mathematics and Philosophy and her Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering from San Diego State University. She has been with SDSC since 1993.

What special characteristics do SDSC's data-oriented HPC users have?

Wilkins-Diehr: High performance computers allow researchers to not only achieve results more quickly, but also to look at problems in much greater detail. Analysis of the types of datasets we see today - generating 40 TB of data in just four days for example - would have been unthinkable a few years ago when our largest file system was only 5 TB. Some users generate so many files that standard Unix commands cannot be used to list the files. For example, when researchers want to model the earth's surface in greater detail for earthquake simulations or they want to include the effects of turbulence within a cloud in star formation. Data management and end-to-end performance are real issues for these researchers. There are a number of base level functionalities users require. They need to be able to make use of parallel I/O. They need to run on an architecture that has extremely high I/O rates. They need to have high speed access to archival storage. I'm proud that SDSC has deployed the kind of balanced infrastructure necessary to meet these end-to-end needs.

What is the TeraGrid and how is it changing science and engineering research?

Wilkins-Diehr: The TeraGrid is an NSF-funded cyberinfrastructure project to connect supercomputers (Tera) via a high speed network connection (Grid). It's grown quite a bit since its inception and now includes data collections, visualization capabilities, instruments and more.


How does the TeraGrid group coordinate over the US?

Wilkins-Diehr: The TeraGrid is a very large, geographically diverse project, with an effective management structure. There are directors in four areas: 1) Science Gateways and Community Outreach, 2) Networking, Operations and Security, 3) Software Integration and 4) User Services. Then there are more focused working groups within each of the four areas including operations, user services, networking, data, etc. I am the area director for Science Gateways.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

Wilkins-Diehr: I enjoy working with talented, motivated people both at SDSC and throughout the country via my TeraGrid work. Getting positive feedback from researchers when they've been able to make a major breakthrough because of our resources is always a highlight. I also enjoy the challenge of addressing complex policy issues where multiple groups are required for resolution.

How fast can you run?

Wilkins-Diehr: That's a nice question, thanks for asking. Running is a great hobby of mine. I particularly enjoy running through Torrey Pines State Park at lunch with SDSC colleagues. How fast I run depends upon the length of the race, but I'm most proud of completing the Rock and Roll marathon in San Diego this past June in 3 hours and 31 minutes. It means I'll be able to run the Boston marathon this coming April. Having attended Boston College for my undergraduate degree, I'll be particularly excited about going back to see friends.

What is an interesting project you are working on now?

Wilkins-Diehr: Definitely the TeraGrid Science Gateways. We see many communities developing interfaces to local resources - computing resources, data collections, etc. These can take many forms, but are often web-based or desktop clients. The Gateways program works with developers to incorporate TeraGrid resources. Many researchers may not even know they are using the TeraGrid, but they will know they're able to model tornadoes in great detail or run very demanding nanoscience simulations. The potential to increase the reach of NSF's cyberinfrastructure resources is really tremendous.