In his new role, Shankar is focused on the individuals that drive the technical innovation at the facility and the people who are served by the scientific breakthroughs that innovation makes possible

World-leading supercomputers, like those built and deployed at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are astonishing feats of computational and infrastructural engineering. But behind the cables, wires and racks is the hard work of hundreds of individuals committed to a mission bigger than themselves. Arjun Shankar, the newly appointed director of the OLCF and the National Center for Computational Sciences, or NCCS, at ORNL, is focused on the individuals that drive the technical innovation at the facility and the people who are served by the scientific breakthroughs that innovation makes possible.

“We drive science and technology breakthroughs by aiming our amazing computational instruments at the most challenging problems of our time,” said Shankar.

After more than two decades at ORNL working in software engineering, research and computing, Shankar now oversees the world’s first exascale supercomputer, Frontier. The powerful system is used to study some of the greatest challenges in climate science, energy, medicine and more to find solutions with far reaching impact.

The director’s background:

Shankar received a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, in 1992 and began working toward his doctorate in the same field at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. After completing his doctoral research, he worked as a software engineer in industry, designing and building next-generation content distribution infrastructures. He joined ORNL in 2002.

Arjun Shankar is the director of the OLCF, home of the Frontier supercomputer. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL

Shankar previously led the Advanced Technologies Section in NCCS and served as director of the Compute and Data Environment for Science. In 22 years at the laboratory, Shankar has produced more than 80 peer-reviewed publications and worked on projects designing large-scale data analysis and modeling systems, nation-scale sensor networks and nation-scale energy grid monitoring and control systems. Despite the scope of these projects, Shankar prioritized simplicity, practicality and a close connection with users to advance the mission and ensure adoption of critical technologies.

“The national labs combine mission-driven innovation and results with foundational rigor,” Shankar said. “Our strengths come from our long legacy of doing basic research and translating it to nationally relevant applications through team science. System architectures and computational and data-driven science methodologies are undergoing a transformation as we speak. We are prioritizing and incorporating innovation in a way that will give us the greatest impact while managing risk.”

Shankar has ambitious goals for NCCS, but they are still driven by pragmatism and a strong focus on teams and users.

“We are always innovating, but innovation without adoption from our users isn’t the goal,” he said. “We are focusing on systems workflows, gains in energy efficiency and robust teams to support end-to-end leadership capability at the OLCF that empowers our users and their science.”

The facility:

The National Center for Computational Sciences manages the OLCF, a DOE Office of Science user facility established in 2004 for the development and management of leadership class compute and data systems. Since its inception, the OLCF has stood up four world-leading supercomputers, including the first hybrid, GPU-powered system, Titan, launched in 2013. In May 2022, ORNL officially broke the exascale barrier with the debut of Frontier, a 1.5-exaflop supercomputer which continues to be the fastest system in the world.

In addition to Frontier, the OLCF manages the IBM AC922 supercomputer Summit, a 200-petaflop system that debuted in 2018 and has supported more than 1,000 projects in its lifetime. The facility also maintains dedicated compute and data systems for program partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Atmospheric Radiation Measurement and the Air Force Weather program.

In recent years, the OLCF has introduced cutting-edge security capabilities for research projects using sensitive data, such as protected health data, that make it possible for program partners like the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to use Summit and Frontier to pursue real-time cancer surveillance and breakthroughs in health care for veterans.

The director’s typical day:

“My hours are a mix of strategic conversations, technical design and review discussions, and procedural meetings,” Shankar said. “I strive to meet with our teams regularly to understand their needs as well as the user and mission challenges they address every day.”

Best advice for a future director at the OLCF:

Shankar thinks NCCS’ success hinges on the ability to meet the growing scientific challenges and needs of the center’s users and partners, which requires a close relationship with both staff and customers.

“The answer to the problems and questions we’re trying to solve is not always what is flashiest,” said Shankar. “Stay grounded and work with your staff and customers to find practical solutions that can be broadly adopted and implemented.”