Skip to main content

NCSA Executive Associate Director of Engagement John Towns Presents Keynote Address at PEARC22

John Towns giving a speech onstage at PEARC22 conference.

Towns speaks at the recent PEARC22 conference in Boston.

John Towns, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications executive associate director of Engagement, was the final keynote speaker at this year’s Practice & Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC) conference in Boston on July 14. An XSEDE leader since 2011, Towns spoke about his experience guiding the National Science Foundation project with a particular focus on how community-building was critical to the project’s success, taking the audience not only through the highlights of the project but also sharing the insights he gained along the way.

Starting on the national cyberinfrastructure work as the TeraGrid Forum chair, Towns was named principal investigator and project director for XSEDE in 2011. He recalled deep divides at the start of the project due to what he characterized as a difficult, disruptive awards process. 

“As a virtual organization of people who often compete for solicitations, they needed to understand how to compartmentalize their activities and align with the larger goals of the project,” he said. From his perspective, it took XSEDE a bit more than three years to hit its stride. By then it was time to analyze lessons learned as XSEDE2, which ran from 2016 to 2022, was beginning the planning process.

The community did, indeed, benefit from coming together. Today, researchers using XSEDE-allocated resources number around 11,500 – including those from NCSA and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – and domains have grown in diversity to include archaeology, finance, genomics and machine learning. The diversity of the partner institutions in XSEDE, Towns said, brought strength to the partnerships and also leveraged various strengths of different institutions – including smaller ones. Trust, he said, was the most important factor contributing to XSEDE’s success.

As the 11-year project winds down in August and the community looks ahead to Advanced Cyberinfrastructure Coordination Ecosystem: Services & Support (ACCESS), NSF’s follow-on project, Towns continues to extoll the virtues of building relationships and learning from each other. He said the community needs greater coherence and to celebrate its success the way other professions do to convey the importance of their work. They need to expand the community beyond those funded by NSF grants, better prepare technical people for management roles and to create career paths beyond the technical. Ultimately, he said,

What’s most important to success is less about proximity to machines and more about proximity to humans.

Read HPCWire’s full account here.

Back to top