High computing most-wanted job in Asia

Countries from Asia-Pacific region are increasingly utilizing high-performance computing, but lack of such IT pros is holding back developments, say industry watchers.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

The dearth of engineers and computer scientists skilled in the niche area of high-performance computing (HPC) is causing the industry to develop at a pace that is not as brisk as some industry insiders would like.

According to Raj. Thampuran, executive director of the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) in Singapore, there is only a "very small pool" of skilled HPC workers in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a lack of skilled workers is starting to hit home as the enterprise arena embarks on cloud computing projects and supercomputers are being run locally.

"This is a serious, critical issue as there are very, very few people able to handle HPC systems and opportunities are lacking for people in Singapore to develop the necessary skills to both build up the HPC hardware infrastructure and create applicable software to run within this space," Thampuran said in a face-to-face interview with ZDNet Asia.

Because of these developments, he thinks it is a "golden time" for IT professionals to enter the region's HPC scene.

The IHPC executive is not the only one calling for more such skilled labor in Singapore and the region. Kirk E. Jordan, emerging solutions executive for IBM's U.S. computational science center, previously observed a noticeably "huge lack of talent" in the HPC field in the region.

During an earlier interview with ZDNet Asia, Jordan had said he hoped the opening of the Nanyang Technological University's HPC Center in February this year, which houses the fastest supercomputer in the Asean region, will become a "training ground" for potential HPC pros and aid in the development of the region's computing capabilities.

To augment this talent pool, Thampuran said that IHPC is taking in people with computer science background and equipping them with the necessary skill set to work in HPC. IHPC is part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore's lead government agency looking into developing scientific research and talent.

"There is a low chance to find ready-made talent in Singapore, which is why we are recruiting people with relevant skill sets and putting them in an environment that would facilitate in developing their talents," he said.

Recruiting foreign talent is also another step taken by the company to boost its staff strength, Thampuran said. On average, 60 percent of the workforce within IHPC are Singaporeans, with the rest being foreigners, he added.

According to Stephen Wong, deputy director for IHPC's computing systems group who was in the same interview with Thampuran, the number of HPC-skilled workers locally is in the "mid to high two digits", which is much too low for the industry currently.

"In order for the HPC sector here to run optimally, my estimate would be two to three times more than the numbers we have now," he said.

Within the local tertiary institutions, there are courses that equip students with the broad-based skills set needed to function in an HPC environment.

The National University of Singapore, for one, has several modules focused on HPC, particularly in the areas of parallel and distributed computing, said Teo Yong Meng, the institute's associate professor with the department of computer science.

In an e-mail, he told ZDNet Asia: "For examples, our computer architecture module includes a few lectures on HPC/parallel architectures, while parallel/HPC programming is taught in the parallel and concurrent programming module."

He also added that there are plans to introduce a new, specialized parallel computing course that will include a basic module covering HPC, parallel computing and emerging computing paradigms such as cloud computing for undergraduate students.

As for NTU, Soh Yeng Chai, interim director of its HPC Center and associate dean of research for the university's college of engineering, said there already are parallel computing courses available. "We are also working with IBM to offer workshops and seminars for a targeted public audience in the future to educate them about HPC," he told ZDNet Asia in an interview.

This will, hopefully, increase awareness of the lack of HPC talent in Singapore and the region, which Thampuran noted is not "going out as resoundingly as it should".

"This message has to percolate down to the generation who are deciding on their career path," he said, adding that the IT industry and its overall image are only now "recovering" from the impact of the dotcom bust.

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