[Beowulf] Scientific computing's future: Can any coding language top a 1950s behemoth ?

Lux, Jim (337C) james.p.lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Sat May 17 07:34:53 PDT 2014

On 5/13/14, 4:48 PM, "Ellis H. Wilson III" <ellis at cse.psu.edu> wrote:

>Wrapping this back into the original issue (next-gen HPC languages), I
>think the core issue is non-programmers programming.  <begin
>generalization>  They don't really want to program.  They're doing it as
>a means to an end.  They'd be more than happy to write equations in lieu
>of routines, as the article alludes to. <end generalization>

Actually, I think this is the core thing.  For most people, they are
interested in doing their job, not programming, whether they are just
typing a book report or doing a full scale simulation of the earth¹s
atmosphere.  The programming is a means to an end.

> Therefore, 
>maybe, instead of continuing to attempt to create the "perfect language"
>that fits their needs,

The challenge is that there are so many problem domains that what you
really need is a custom language tailored to each of them.  And isn¹t that
what we have with large subroutine libraries and what not? Someone who is
stringing together calls to library routines is basically programming in a
domain specific language (with a strange hybrid of the syntax and
semantics of the underlying implementation language, rather than something
that is domain relevant).

Or, what you see is domain specific pre and post processors for the
underlying numerical computations.  For the Numerical Electromagnetics
Code there¹s dozens of preprocessors and post processors ranging from
Excel spreadsheets and macros to dedicated graphics editors and
sophisticated plotting programs (since the underlying code is really
looking for 80 column input records and generates 132 column output
files).  But those pre-post processors are sort of narrow, and don¹t
really rise to a ³programming language² in that they have a fairly
simplistic architectural model.  They provide some basic iteration and
computation syntax (e.g. One can systematically change the length of an
element of the model and get a summary of the output), but it¹s not like
you can actually do ³programming²  You couldn¹t write a customized
optimizer using the pre, post processor capabilities.

The same is true in structural analysis and in computational flow and, I¹m
sure, although I have no experience in it, with computational chemistry.
Anyone who is doing lots of this kind of thing has the basic validated
simulation codes and a huge toolbox of modeling and analysis stuff.  Maybe
it¹s programs that take a solid model and automatically generating the FEM
grid. Maybe it¹s a program or routine that takes the raw analysis output
and generates output in a particularly useful format (domain specific).

People optimizing race cars do not literally re-invent the wheel model
each time they do a new simulation and analysis.

> maybe the better solution is to teach them the
>tenets of proper programming so they can grasp the process and instruct
>them on ways to write very clean and elegant design documents.  Sure, in
>some cases that may take as long just to get the design doc done as it
>would for them to just code it, but in the long run if said code gets
>wrapped into a larger project (or grows into one) it will result in far
>less maintenance and complexity than having 10 physicists and 10 CS
>folks both playing with the code simultaneously.

Never going to happen: a lot of scientific computation is done by
incremental development without a clear picture of where the end point is.
 You write some Matlab code to analyze some raw data you collected.  Hmm,
that looks interesting, so you graft on another step of processing.  That
looks better, but, hey, this aspect is interesting now, so you write some
more code to do the processing needed.

Rarely does someone start out with a clean sheet and say ³I¹m going to
write a numerical simulation of the weather², because that would be a
herculean (and expensive) task.  Particularly in what I¹ll call scientific
computation, the government funded development process is characterized by
receiving relatively small amounts of budget over many, many years.  If
you go to the NSF site for instance, and look at the several dozen awards
for climate and large scale dynamics, you¹ll see that they¹re pretty much
all in the ³few $100k² range.  Those PIs receiving the funds are
interested more in the science than in the software engineering (it is the
National *Science* Foundation, after all)

It is possible that there is significant commercial development of these
sorts of models (almost certainly the case in the biotech field) and I
would imagine that they DO actually use better design processes.

And for something like NASTRAN, where there is a clearly identified large
scale need, it could get funded with a larger chunk of change, and
hopefully use decent software engineering.


James Lux, P.E.
Task Manager, FINDER ­ Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency
Co-Principal Investigator, SCaN Testbed (née CoNNeCT) Project
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
4800 Oak Grove Drive, MS 161-213
Pasadena CA 91109
+1(818)395-2714 (cell)


More information about the Beowulf mailing list