How Jason Hill and the risk management team are working to keep Frontier on track amid supply line disruptions and a worldwide shutdown
The “Pioneering Frontier” series features stories profiling the many talented ORNL employees behind the construction and operation of the OLCF’s incoming exascale supercomputer, Frontier. The HPE Cray system is scheduled for delivery in 2021, with full user operations in 2022.
Jason Hill sometimes jokes he knocks on wood for a living.
“In the past year, I’ve worn a hole in my desk,” he said.
As risk manager for the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), Hill spends his days—and some sleepless nights—pondering not what kind of scientific breakthroughs Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s supercomputers can make possible but what can stand in the way. The countdown to launch for Frontier, the nation’s first exascale supercomputer, increased those concerns—and that was before a viral pandemic shut down the world.
“I definitely didn’t have that on the bingo card,” Hill said. “When we first talked about the coronavirus and what might happen, it was in February 2020, and the virus was still seen as just a problem overseas. Some team members at the time wondered, ‘Why are we dedicating so much time to this?’ But shortly thereafter came the directive to work from home, and now here we are over a year later.”
The planning—and yes, worrying—paid off. The Frontier system remains on track for delivery by late 2021, more than a year into the greatest worldwide disease outbreak in a century and amid shocks to supply lines from Albania to Zimbabwe.
“We got ahead of the problem, if only by a couple of weeks,” Hill said. “That’s why we plan, for the situations we expect and don’t expect. That we’ve been able to stay on track is a huge credit to the design and construction teams who are part of this amazing group of people. My job as the risk manager is to just help them do theirs the best way they can and try to eliminate uncertainty along the way.”
The power of exascale speed, capable of over a quintillion calculations per second—more than 1018, or a billion billion—promises opportunities to help solve some of the greatest challenges in science when the HPE Cray system opens to full user operations in 2022. Teams of scientists will be lined up, waiting to tackle challenges such as screening new cancer treatments, building better nuclear reactors, and probing the origins of the universe.
Hill’s priorities tend to be more immediate. Will the system arrive on time? Will unexpected costs sap the budget? Which parts of the plan could stumble—and which solutions will be effective? And once all the parts that comprise Frontier finally arrive, will they fit together and work as intended when the requisite dignitaries show up to cut the ribbon and flip the switch?
“Even during the pandemic, the greatest risk has been and probably always will be the scale of the system,” Hill said. “The first time it’s ever put together as one machine is when it shows up here at our facility. The application teams can’t fine-tune the codes until we have all the hardware, so until it’s all put together, we don’t have the ability to measure full system performance.”
Constant questions and point-by-point planning can cut down the guesswork. Hill approaches each project like a detective sizing up a case, noting the good and the bad, the known and the unknown.
He and other members of the OLCF team draw on decades of experience in building up and maintaining supercomputer systems from Jaguar to Titan to Summit, the nation’s fastest such machine until Frontier powers up. Hill spent a decade as an on-call system administrator, helping maintain the file systems supporting those computers and answering his share of late-night calls and emails.
“I’ve been one of the people receiving, configuring, and operating computer systems throughout my career, and that experience helps me ask leading questions of the project team that is executing the work but may not speak the same language as the team responsible for creating the project’s performance baseline,” he said. “We start with what project controls call the iron triangle—cost, schedule, and scope—and build out from there. How certain are we on each of these? Where can we find events that will affect the project’s ability to deliver on any of these goals?
“Some people choose to see risk management as a roadblock to their work, but it’s really just about helping achieve the end goal. We look at the risks to the project’s completion, but we also look at opportunities—a risk that can benefit the project, too. As the project moves along, events become more certain, and estimates are fine-tuned as we go. Then we can have multiple risk-mitigation plans locked and ready to go if and when an event occurs.”
Having the team’s full support just makes the process smoother.
“They understand the value that risk management can create,” Hill said. “We have great discussions during our risk meetings, and in other discussions, the team will routinely ask: ‘Is this in our risk register?’ That level of team investment helps improve the ability of the project to meet their deliverables.”
The coronavirus appeared on the risk management team’s radar near the end of February 2020. They had barely a week and a half to prepare before the nationwide shutdown began.
“That day in March when we got the guidance to stay home, it became apparent to everyone this pandemic was going to be something that could really affect the project,” Hill said. “First, if the lab shuts down completely, our construction crews can’t get the work done. Second, if all our staff have to work from home, we introduce lots of potential reliability and stability issues with our electronic infrastructure. We can’t fix an issue with an outside internet service provider’s network, for example. That impacts our team’s ability to collaborate and complete their work on the project.
“Then there’s the additional risk that all the vendors along the supply chain are doing the same thing in terms of remote work and safety protocols. Can they produce at the level to meet the project goals? Can they meet the delivery time promised? And that’s on top of the existing risks we already had to navigate.”
The lead time, though slim, proved to be enough to pivot. Steps that might seem minor on their own—increasing advance orders on materials, shoring up network security, drawing up safety protocols for crews onsite just in case—came together to help keep the project on track.
“Some of them were little things we had no idea would save us later,” Hill said. “We’d created an electronic workflow process early in the project—in 2019—that eliminated the need for hand signatures for approvals of change requests. That turned out to be a necessity in a work-from-home environment. The guidance to work from home created a bubble that allowed the construction crews to keep working safely on-site, similar to what was done for the end of the NBA season in 2020. Our risk management process and discussion of the responses to several scenarios bought us some time. We took advantage of that time, and the result has been this project remaining on schedule.”
The project to bring Frontier online began with more than 100 identified risks. Hill estimates he’s been able to cross out a quarter or more of those as the supercomputer’s arrival date draws closer.
“From the risk-management perspective, the hardest part is over now,” Hill said. “We’re closing out the facility-related work. There are still risks: safety for installation, project staffing—someone could win the lottery tomorrow—that’s why the project team cross-trains and has succession plans. I’m counting down to later this year when the facility transitions to Paul Abston (the OLCF Data Center manager and installation manager for Frontier), to put the system on the floor, connect everything, and turn it on safely.”
The work won’t end with Frontier’s delivery, but Hill hopes the handoff will allow more time to spend with his wife and four children and to jump back into his favorite pastime of running. The clock’s ticking once again: he already signed up for his next marathon.
UT-Battelle LLC manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.