High Performance Computing International Summer Schools

Ramses van Zon
Author Ramses van Zon.

This summer, I attended the annual International Summer School on Challenges in High Performance Computing (IHPCSS) in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I attended as part of the organizing committee, as well as the instructor of the “Python for HPC” session.  The IHPCSS was a great event, both because of the educational need it serves as well as the social and networking opportunities.


IHPCSS is organized by Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE), Compute Canada, and RIKEN (Japan) and brings together the best instructors and the most keen students in order to build upon the various regional and national training efforts. The location of this week-long, expenses-paid workshop alternates between North America and Europe. Its intended audience is graduate students in a research area that can benefit from HPC. Typical topics covered in the school are parallel programming, GPU programming, and data intensive computing.

IHPCSS 2016 Ljubljana
IHPCSS 2016 in Ljubljana

A day in the life

The topics of this summer school may seem familiar to those in the HPC field. However, the IHPCSS is more than just a training event; it has some rather unique aspects that sets it apart from similar local, regional, and national events.

First, the number of spots is limited to 80, which necessitates a selection process. Selections are based on skill (which means the level can be higher), as well as the degree to which the acquired knowledge would advance the research of the participant.

Secondly, the event fosters international collaborations and friendships.  I found this to be true not only for the students, but the instructors as well.

Thirdly, the event includes science talks in which scientists from a broad set of fields present the HPC challenges and successes in their field.

Finally, for every three students there is a mentor (either an instructor, HPC staff, or a student from a previous year).  Since I was also a mentor to three of the students, I was asked about pretty much anything from technical topics to career advice.

Some participants told me that they were the only practitioners of HPC in their research group, and appreciated seeing the wide range of applications of HPC, connecting with peers in similar situations, and understanding their career possibilities.

Learning from one another

There is a huge need for training events like this. The computational resources available to scientists and engineers have never been greater and have opened up a world of computational research which was previously inaccessible in a wide range of fields, from bioinformatics to astrophysics. But to utilize these resources, researchers need to have a good understanding of advanced research computing and high-performance computing.  Often, the research is done as part of graduate studies, but one rarely finds academic programs that teach the required skills.

In my role as an HPC application analyst at SciNet at the University of Toronto, I have witnessed the need for these additional skills in our users.  Just like many of our analysts, I am not only answering support emails, but I am also heavily involved in SciNet’s training and teaching program (HPC Training at SciNet) and also in the annual Ontario HPC Summer School, organized by the three consortia in Ontario (Centre for Advanced Computing, SHARCNET and SciNet) under the Compute Ontario umbrella.

Computing centres that make computational resources available to academic researchers – such as the centres in the XSEDE partnership in the US and PRACE, and those of Compute Canada – have recognized that their users need additional skills. These centres have thus been providing HPC training as part of their user support.

Ontario in IHPCSS

The involvement of Compute Canada (and thus of Compute Ontario) in the IHPCSS has been recent but substantial.  Compute Canada joined the International Summer School in 2014, sending 10 students and one mentor to Budapest, Hungary.  In 2015, the IHPCSS was hosted by Compute Canada at the University of Toronto, with 11 Canadian students and four mentors.

This year, Compute Canada sent 10 students, four mentors and one instructor to the event in Ljubljana.  To give an idea of Ontario’s involvement in IHPCSS, five of the 10 students and four of the five mentors were from Ontario.

IHPCSS 2017 hosted closer to home

I found the week in Ljubljana very enjoyable.  Next year’s IHPCSS will be in North America, and I intend to be involved again. Keep an eye out for the announcement of IHPCSS 2017 in the fall!