Argonne training program prepares researchers for scientific computing in the exascale era

Petro Junior Milan tears his eyes from his laptop and flexes his fingers, giving them a few seconds’ reprieve from his nearly 11 days of nonstop typing at the 2019 Argonne Training Program on Extreme-Scale Computing (ATPESC), an annual event organized by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and funded by DOE’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP).

Around him, fellow ATPESC participants are also rapidly typing, attempting to capture everything Sameer Shende, director of the Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Oregon and the president and director of ParaTools, Inc., is sharing about performance analysis tools for scientific applications on large-scale supercomputers.

One month earlier, Milan was in his office at Georgia Tech struggling with an intractable problem: improving the parallelized, multi-physics code for his simulations of turbulent reacting flows in liquid rocket engines. Now, Shende’s lectures — on tracing tools to analyze the behavior and time complexity of parallel programs — are providing some insight that might help Milan solve his problem. After the lecture, the two discussed options for improving Milan’s simulations.

Like Milan, many computer scientists and graduate students require more in-depth training and hands-on experience with high-performance computing (HPC) tools needed to advance science in the emerging exascale era. ATPESC, now in its seventh year, plays an important role in growing the community of researchers who can use supercomputers to tackle complex problems in science and engineering. The annual training event, which was held at the Q Center in St. Charles, Illinois, this summer, has now hosted nearly 500 participants since its inception.

With support from the ECP, ATPESC is structured to dovetail with the nation’s efforts to develop a capable computing ecosystem for future exascale supercomputers, including Aurora at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) and Frontier at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), both DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

Lasting two weeks, the training program provides participants with invaluable HPC skills and tools that they can later apply to their home institutions and research projects. While the days are long — beginning at 8:30 a.m. and often extending to 9:30 p.m. — they are packed with expert lectures, hands-on HPC coding sessions and nightly dinner talks.

After attending ATPESC for a week, Kristofer Zieb, a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), said, ​“I feel like I went through grad school all over again.” The tightly condensed, lecture-filled days may be rigorous, but the results of ATPESC show. ​“When I get back to the lab, I will definitely be a more competent and contributing member of the HPC community,” Zieb said.

“The transformation that the ATPESC participants experience over the two weeks of the training program is remarkable,” said ATPESCprogram director Marta García, a computational scientist at Argonne. ​“This is an intensive, once-in-a-lifetime experience that impacts their careers and helps them better prepare for complex hardware and software ecosystems.”

This year, Argonne welcomed 73 participants, comprising graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, professors and early-career scientists.  ATPESC’s 66 lecturers included renowned scientists, HPCexperts and other field leaders. Extending from July 28 to Aug. 9, the program curriculum covered the following tracks:

  • Hardware Architectures
  • Programming Models and Languages
  • Data-intensive Computing and Input/Output (I/O)
  • Visualization and Data Analysis
  • Numerical Algorithms and Software for Extreme-Scale Science
  • Performance Tools and Debuggers
  • Software Productivity
  • Machine Learning and Deep Learning for Science (added in 2019)

Each track session featured detailed lectures that culminated in a hands-on HPC coding exercise during which participants were encouraged to use their own codes.

The participants also toured the Argonne campus, exploring the Laboratory’s highly advanced technology and research facilities, including the Advanced Photon Source (APS), ALCF, Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator System (ATLAS) and Nuclear Energy Exhibition Hall. Like the ALCF, the APS and ATLAS are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

In addition to the tour, the participants utilized hundreds of thousands of cores of computing power from the ALCF’s Mira and Theta systems, as well as the OLCF’s Summit system and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center’s (NERSC) Cori system (also a DOE Office of Science User Facility).

“ATPESC is an intensive, hands-on, extraordinary training program, providing a unique perspective on extreme-scale computing,” said Rosangela Follmann, a visiting professor in the School of Information and Technology at Illinois State University. In the fall, she will be teaching a parallel computing class in which she will apply what she learned at ATPESC.

“Most people are not exposed to the breadth of HPC tools and topics in their degree programs,” added Cyrus Harrison, an LLNL scientist who lectured on visualization and data analysis. According to Harrison, ATPESC is valuable and successful, bringing together vast knowledge for the HPC discipline.

Daniel Barry, a Ph.D. student in Data Science and Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, agreed, ​“ATPESC is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for anyone who wants to refine their skills or learn certain areas of HPC more thoroughly.”

Before attending ATPESC, Barry tried to learn more about software tools for supercomputing via online documentation, but this approach was not as productive as the ATPESC experience. ​“A lot of explanations I’ve seen online are missing the crucial details that make a difference in understanding the nuanced scenarios that occur in the codes for high-performance computational workloads. ATPESC has been designed in such a way that is easy to understand and program effectively in these scenarios.”

Even the lecturers gained from their student interactions. ​“It’s a lot of fun for the whole track team to interact with the attendees,” said Argonne senior computational scientist Lois Curfman McInnes, who coordinates the track on numerical algorithms and software for extreme-scale science. ​“I enjoyed learning about the experiences and interests of the attendees and how their new directions can impact our research.”

Although the event has limited space, ATPESC’s broad curriculum is available to the public. Each year since its inception, the program has posted lecture slides and videos online. Videos of the 2019 lectures will be available soon. To learn more about the program, visit the ATPESC website.

ATPESC program director García concluded, ​“What I admire most in the participants every year is their passion, hard work, open-mindedness, creative thinking and dedication to improve their codes and their disciplines ― and to take what they learn and improve our society. On behalf of the 100 volunteers who are involved in the preparation for ATPESC, we wanted to say: Thank you for believing in this program and in its benefit to the scientific community worldwide.”

The Exascale Computing Project is a collaborative effort of two DOE organizations — the Office of Science and the National Nuclear Security Administration. ECP was established to develop a capable exascale ecosystem, encompassing applications, system software, hardware technologies and architectures and workforce development to meet the scientific and national security mission needs of DOE in the mid-2020s timeframe.

Established by Congress in 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear explosive testing; works to reduce the global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad. Visit nnsa​.ener​gy​.gov for more information.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit