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Photograph of Michelle Butler

Photograph of Michelle Butler

Michelle Butler, a senior assistant director at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications is retiring after 32 years with the organization. From maintaining NCSA’s first archive system in PL/1 and MVS to managing over fifty people in astronomy-based storage projects, Butler has been quietly building NCSA systems architecture from the inside out for almost as long as the NCSA has been around.

Butler is an exemplar of the type of homegrown intellectual capital Illinois has to offer. In the 1980s, the global, but locally headquartered Caterpillar, was funding adult education classes at her Pekin high school on computer programming. Michelle, a high school junior at the time, signed up for the extra classes, discovering talent, an uncanny knack for programming, picking up Fortran and Cobol quickly. Before long, her instructor, another woman (at the time very rare) let her come in early each day to boot the machines and run basic maintenance checks on them, and then again in the afternoon to run close-down procedures.

Illinois State University seal in red and white with text that says "Gladly we learn and teach" in a book that's in front of a torch.
Illinois State University seal.

Fast forward to December 1984, Michelle graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Applied Computer Science. “We had to type all of our programs on cards my freshman year,” she recalls. “After that, we were on consoles locally attached to the mainframe, specifically in two large labs. We were at the lab until two or three in the morning sometimes.” Among her new programming skills were PL/1, database design, CICS, and MVS operating systems. Following graduation, she had a brief stint in Chicago at her first programming job for a healthcare company, processing health insurance forms.

Michelle knows how to connect with people. She often started the week by stopping into offices to inquire about other people’s weekends so she could ‘live vicariously.’ She actively supported the team by going to meetings in our stead so that we could ‘get real work done.’ Michelle understands that a great boss must have a strong relationship with her staff. The result being a dedicated team willing to do whatever was needed to get the job done.

Andy Loftus, NCSA technical program manager

In 1986, she took a position with a small telecom company, working with the first cellphone bill-processing companies in Champaign. Back then cellphone calls’ length and times were recorded on tape and processing them at the end of the day meant running through hours and hours of data on round tape. It was an IBM CICS online program running Cobol under MVS, and they had a problem with their CICS/Cobol code. In her first week, one of the processing applications – when it ran – moved at a glacial pace. It was very problematic. Butler diagnosed and fixed the problem on day one. Needless to say, they wanted to keep her on.

A scanned photograph of Michelle in a white wedding gown and Randy in a black tuxedo on their wedding day.
Michelle and Randy on their wedding day.

Michelle and her husband Randy met in college and were married in 1987. He had already taken a job at the Center in 1987. Looking for a new challenge, Michelle joined the team in 1990.

I will truly miss Michelle. Her technical ability combined with her collaborative spirit has been integral to so much of what NCSA has accomplished in her 32.5 years! I, personally, appreciate her leadership style. She can delegate and direct others to accomplish what needs to be done, but she is always willing to step in and actually do the work. That servant leadership has been evident throughout her entire career.

Amy Scheule, NCSA associate director integrated cyberinfrastructure

Some of NCSA’s machines at the time (IBM, IBM-compatible) were running an MVS operating system written in PL/I, and Michelle saw the chance to jump to something more interesting, applying for a position working with NCSA’s archives system. Her new position was working within cyberinfrastructure’s unsung hero, storage. It’s critical to every component, but with large-scale operations being conducted over distance (say, for external users downloading assets) ensuring that storage is both quick, responsive, and above all accurate is not necessarily an obvious consideration or easy thing to do. Butler quickly picked up Unix/GNU/Linux as it was becoming more routinely used, particularly as both a base for early web browsers and as an entry point on the command line for supercomputer use.

NCSA had a smaller number of groups then. We were all innovators, we all had our own budget and worked independently to make NCSA better. Core funding from the NSF filled out the whole organization at the time, making it easier for the team to try new things across the center.

Michelle Butler

It was also at this time that NCSA Application developers like Eric Bina and Marc Andreessen began the launch of Mosaic, the first graphical web browser. By the time Mosaic landed on the cover of the New York Times business section in December 1993, more than 5,000 copies of the browser were being downloaded a month and the center was receiving hundreds of thousands of email inquiries a week. Michelle, like many on the team, was a frequent conference attendee. But deep in the entrails of the hardware, she hadn’t seen the rapid growth of Mosaic from the developer’s perspective. So when conference participants began to corner her about how to download NCSA’s Mosaic, it was a bit of a shock. 

Michelle recalls a story, around that time – when downloads of the software began to take off – the server that ran the fledgling web browser was in danger. “No one could download Mosaic,” Michelle recalled, “it kept crashing. Larry Smarr marched into my office and told me ‘I couldn’t care less if the supercomputers go down, keep the Mosaic servers up!’” At that time, if the supercomputers went down for even a few minutes, “everyone was on call. So that really showed me just how important Mosaic was to NCSA and the world.” Smarr, founding director of NCSA, remembers saying “Everybody has heard about the NCSA Mosaic browser and how it was transformational in the development of the World Wide Web, which Tim Berners-Lee had created a few years earlier. But it was the first parallel server back-end that made the Mosaic revolution possible. That gets much less attention.” As Smarr recalls, though located somewhat under the radar in east-central Illinois, “for a while, I recall that it was the most hit web server in the world.” 

Photograph of Larry Smarr smiling in business attire
Photograph of Larry Smarr

First, one server was added. Then two, then as many as 16. A tiger team including Michelle and other experts across the center came together to build the Mosaic download site that would be fault-tolerant for machine failures forming one of the first parallel computing clusters. “We built “sister” systems that were mirrors of each other. The problem was that the “What’s New” page and the client downloads were changing all the time, so keeping the mirrors or ‘sisters’ in sync, required parallel file systems, and a way to make all the systems look identical with the most current info. No one was doing that.” Said Butler. The environment was built to be fault-tolerant of the load being placed on it from all the activity, the demands on the storage system from the downloads, the updates from all the new sites coming online (thousands per day), and for the DNS to give a “rotating” address for the actual server. All of these were firsts by NCSA, now ubiquitous. “I was confident that she would get the work done,” said Smarr, pointing out a paper Butler co-authored (with Robert McGrath and first author Eric Dean Katz) a paper still cited today on the “Scalable HTTP Server.”

I have known Michelle for quite some time and we have worked on many projects together over the years.  She has always been an excellent collaborator and technical expert. She also always brought an interesting perspective to conversations.

John Towns, NCSA executive associate director of engagement

Another important aspect of Butler’s first few years at NCSA was hardware testing. One of the things Michelle was most proud of about her early days at NCSA was the creation of The Gauntlet. Rigorous, multi-linear testing of High-Performance Computing disk platform technology. The Gauntlet was used by NCSA to test all hardware purchased on the public’s dime or given by industry for that express purpose. Some of the tests in the gauntlet: Overall I/O performance, Port 80 response time, database queries, striping of data, parallel reads/rights, handling metadata, database environments. Since even one thing that works improperly could drastically alter your input/output speeds (I/O).

NCSA is no stranger to visitation from the movie makers. Donna Cox, who retired in 2021, led teams who made scientific visualizations for films narrated by blockbuster talents like Liam Neeson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Meanwhile, Michelle Butler’s expertise was being drawn on for an entirely different reason.

A scene from Pixar/Disney’s 2005 “Cars” movie. ©Disney•Pixar. All rights reserved.

In 2000, Pixar was working on its 2005 hit film, Cars starring Owen Wilson and Paul Newman. Ironically, this movie about fast cars was having speed problems due to the enormous level of detail crashing the servers rendering the opening sequence. Disney and Pixar have no shortage of talent, but they needed the technical expertise of NCSA’s Butler to help them get the most out of their hardware. It took a few conversations to sort out, but the result is magnificent.

In 32 years Butler’s had many accomplishments, but one of them is certainly her work in helping design Blue Waters. Given the responsibility of designing the storage architecture for a $208 million supercomputer, Butler and the team knew they’d have to create something novel. “The underlying storage units of Blue Waters are connected to the compute nodes in a unique fashion; the file system connects a subset of storage units to the high-speed torus network at distinct points.” The filesystem for scratch at 20 petabytes was faster than 1TB/s speed for applications. No other system in the public space came close to that number for many years, and the design became a best practice for the industry over the Blue Waters lifetime. Butler took a similar approach to other HPC storage environments making sure to take into account redundancy and server failover.

A photo of Blue Water’s installation at NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility.

Much of Butler’s expertise was as much innovative problem solving as it was programming or wiring. Her latest position at NCSA was within the Astrophysical Survey Program Office doing just that with her current colleague, Joaquin Vieira, Director of the Center for AstroPhysical Surveys (CAPS). An office that takes in a tremendous amount of astronomical data from a variety of prominent telescopes and requires not only good storage solutions but a large team working across the disciplines of astronomy, computer engineering, and distributed computing to make the whole system work as a single entity. As a senior assistant director Butler managed a large team of engineers and scientists building many types of compute and storage environments for the astronomical data coming into NCSA. Of Butler, Vieira says,“I learned a lot about how to manage people and groups and projects. For the first time when I came over to this role, I had the privilege of working with women in an executive leadership function. Michelle’s approach of calmness, compassion, and competence was a welcome change to the way I was accustomed to seeing groups managed in STEM fields.”

Much has changed in 32 years, but women are still significantly underrepresented in technology. “In the United States alone, women make up about half of the workforce but fill only

25% of professional computing jobs, according to the National Center for Women and

Information Technology.” 2021 Women in Tech Report. Butler was one of a handful of women in technology at a time when that number would have been infinitesimally small.

For a long time, she was the only woman in the room – often in the middle of the night. Keeping servers up and running is a 24-hour job, but so is having a family. Recognizing the importance of being available for her children after school, Butler would start work on time but then leave at 3 p.m. to get the kids home from school and to any after-school activities. Then she’d be back online by 9 p.m., running diagnostics on machines and solving problems way into the late evening hours. Michelle was a trailblazer for women in STEM right here at NCSA.

When I came to NCSA in the late ’90s, we [visualization] people were in the boondocks – the Beckman building. Our workstations depended on NCSA AFS, but sometimes it would just flake out, and all of us in Beckman would be dead in the water. It was Michelle who finally traced that long-standing problem to its source – an unreliable network card – and fixed it. For that and many interactions since, Michelle is my hero.

 Stuart Levy, NCSA AVL senior research programmer

There were other issues too, a familiar story to many. “Every meeting that I went to early on – I was the only woman in the meeting. When I walked into a meeting to discuss my team’s current research, if there were folks from outside the NCSA, visitors, or contributing scientists, they’d say, ‘Oh good, coffee’s here.’ So, I made sure that the coffee was rolled in before I got there.”

It’s hard to imagine that kind of treatment now. Michelle and her colleague Amy Scheule also spent much of their time on NCSA search committees. Illinois law mandates minority representation on a search committee. “We basically hired everyone at NCSA for a while. Amy and I hired like three-quarters of the people back in the day” When asked what she’d want to tell young women looking at STEM as a career, she says,

Believe in yourself, you have every right to be here just like everyone else. And always treat everyone with respect and admiration for the job that they do.

Michelle will be missed greatly by her colleagues and she looks forward to a retirement of enjoying her children in their adult lives. “I plan on following my children where they go…I hope to travel more often and visit my parents in Arizona.”

I’ve worked for and with Michelle for well over 25 years and have always admired her professionalism and the care she has for NCSA and the people that make it up. No matter what was happening, she always put the welfare of her staff and co-workers at the forefront. I consider her a friend and a mentor, and it has been a great honor to share these times with her.

Jim Glasgow, NCSA technical program manager of advanced systems

It’s a tough thing cleaning out your office of 32 years. Often we don’t even have a home that long, let alone office space. Michelle will be missed, but we have the tapes to prove she was here.

The LSST team at Butler’s farm. “I’d been a mosaic user, so having Michelle on the Rubin team was like having a rock star on board.” Image supplied by William O’Mullane, Vera Rubin Observatory, data management project manager.
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