DellXL is a consortium of HPC customers who implement Dell solutions for research computing. I encourage HPC centers to look into joining this small but growing group as a means to make their computers and centers and services even more “super”. DellXL was founded in April of 2007 where a handful of Dell Cluster owners got together, wrote up a mission and charter, and has now met every spring and fall since. I was one of the founding members of DellXL. At the time I was a manager of a recently established but rapidly growing HPC center, and despite having a top 100 system, honestly I felt quite small and uncertain of how my organization measured up. Sure, I attended the Supercomputing event, talked to vendors frequently, and read online forums, but what I gained from joining DellXL gave me back a lot more; it gave me more confidence as an HPC director, it expanded my contacts for collaboration and support, and it gave me an opportunity to give direct feedback to Dell and the HPC community.
The meetings at DellXL include many informal discussions that lead to new ideas, shared knowledge, and confidence building. Even with only 20 registered sites, roll call at DellXL spans the country with the likes of TACC, NCSA, Sandia National Labs, NASA Goddard, Universities of North Carolina, CalTech, and Harvard. Yes, big names, but at the end of the day they all have a lot in common with less known centers who also attend and contribute. Everyone needs a datacenter, everyone has power and cooling issues, and everyone has system users who have an unquenchable thirst for more cycles. A lot of time is spent at meetings simply comparing notes: How do you monitor your system? What are the policies within your job scheduler? When do you refresh your equipment? And a whole lot of why why why? Further, DellXL meetings are hosted at member sites, so you get the chance to walk through a variety of facilities and see how others have layed out rows, power, network cabling, and deep baskets of infiniband. Some of my early learning experiences included finding out that it’s ok to use meat locker curtains and parachute material to contain airflow, and that my rats nest of cables back home really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was!
DellXL can provide you with a valuable knowledge and support network. Building an HPC system requires making a lot of little decisions. Having a network of friends who meet and share their best practices can greatly simplify your acquisition and deployment process. I find this to be helpful in a few ways. First off, by participating you are making friends with a community of people who are trying or buying new things all the time - you can make use of all those eyes looking at the same problems. They can speak to their test environments, hardware compatibility, and application specific configurations. Secondly, you may find someone who has something you want, or don’t want. I once had a user who insisted that he needed a system with 4 times the amount of RAM of any in-house server we had. We got quotes and were on the edge of a purchase, but I stalled and contacted a DellXL friend who had a large memory system. He graciously offered some system time and it was determined that big memory had no benefit to my user, and further, led to a significant bug discovery in his code. Though a simple example, this tip alone paid well and above my years of accumulated travel expenses for attending DellXL.
So it turns out that Dell happens to be part of the DellXL meetings as well, but not with as much presence as you might think. The consortium of members guided by their elected leadership decides what will be on meeting agendas. The members themselves are the primary speakers, providing updates on their sites, their research, and their issues. Though Dell product updates and roadmap discussions are usually on the agenda, one of the big mutual gains of DellXL is the feedback given and received. Members don’t hold back and Dell is there to take it. This has always been a favorite element of DellXL for me. It’s a chance to see opinions of what works well and is liked, versus deliberate interrogation of why Dell doesn’t provide product x or feature y? It is also a chance for Dell to explain their direction and intent. To be clear, this isn’t a defensive session. Dell puts on its listening ears and takes the feedback home as a guide to future products and services.
As I have travelled the country I have found many an HPC facility that is making the transition from supporting HPC on the sidelines to becoming a much larger utility. This can be a daunting challenge and I empathize. I have also visited large and experienced institutions who still struggle to stay up on everything HPC. To both of these groups I say DellXL is for you. Both the big and the small have value to share. Ultimately, most small HPC centers grow into bigger centers. There are many groups and conferences out there where information can be mined, but I truly see DellXL as a gem. It is small enough and informal enough that there are no bystanders. Everyone contributes, and everyone gains.
Visit http://dellxl.org/members.php for a list of current members and information on joining DellXL.