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Data Deluge Drives Demand

By admin - Posted on 24 March 2012

With the world’s fastest computers capable of processing quadrillions of calculations per second and the amount of data researchers generate growing by an order of magnitude each year, every field of science is turning to supercomputers to do new, innovative, data-intensive things: analyze genomes, simulate the evolution of dark matter, visualize the structure of proteins, and on and on. Supercomputers also offer a number of time- and money-saving opportunities for companies, which increasingly rely on these powerful machines to design everything from jets to sudsier laundry detergent.

Yet, there is a significant barrier for companies that want to take advantage of these new machines: a lack of hardware engineers, software developers, and scientists with high-performance computing skills.

Here are a few universities that offer educational opportunities for domain scientists who wish to acquire high-performance computing training:

  • The University of Oklahoma Supercomputing Center for Education & Outreach helps facilitate interdisciplinary computational science degrees.
  • The University of Southern California offers an M.S. degree in computer science specializing in high-performance computing.
  • Pennsylvania State University offers an interdisciplinary graduate minor in computer science.
  • Indiana University, Bloomington, offers a graduate minor in scientific computing with an emphasis on high-performance computing.
  • Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota, offers undergraduates a minor in high-performance computing.

“We have a tremendous need to really develop expertise at a variety of levels, whether it’s computational scientists who solve particular problems or people looking at software development,” says Alan Blatecky, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Cyberinfrastructure. “The capabilities we have at our fingertips are growing rapidly, but we haven’t been growing the same capability in terms of people to take advantage of it.”

High demand

As researchers produce more and more data to crunch, national labs and university-affiliated supercomputer centers are expanding and building new supercomputers, which need more and more computer scientists with high-performance computing skills to program and operate them. While precise job descriptions vary widely, these institutions are looking for professionals who can train other computer scientists and collaborate with research scientists to develop modeling programs and software. They also need diagnostic experts who can, for example, recognize problems in a researcher’s buggy code or determine if aberrant data are a result of computer hardware malfunctions, says James Ferguson, director of education, outreach, and training at the National Institute for Computational Sciences at the University of Tennessee.

"We are certainly having trouble finding people with the appropriate skills,” says William Gropp, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which is installing a new supercomputer called Blue Waters. “Everyone that I’ve spoken to has said that hiring is a problem.”

According to the most recent Taulbee Survey of the Computing Research Association, of the more than 1300 new computer science Ph.D. graduates who found jobs in North America in 2010, fewer than 2% pursued careers in high-performance computing.

Ph.D. graduates with supercomputer skills often receive multiple job offers, sometimes from different divisions within the same company, says Henry Neeman, director of the University of Oklahoma Supercomputing Center for Education & Research. Those who land private industry jobs can expect to make low-six-figure salaries within a few years.

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