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Collaborate to Innovate

November 11, 2010
at 2:23 pm PST

Doug Eadline recently talked about how community is tremendously important to HPC.  Two words: he’s right.  The HPC ecosystem is all about working together to advance the state of the art.  No single group, university, or company could do it alone.

As Cisco’s representative to the MPI Forum and the Open MPI software projects, I often work with teams of researchers and developers.  Sometimes all the people are in one physical place and the process of sharing ideas and dividing work is easy. But it’s much more common for me to participate in geographically scattered groups of people.  And there’s no doubt about it: collaboration across distances is just hard.  You just can’t beat having a bunch of engineers in the same room with a whiteboard when trying to figure out a complex topic. But we don’t always get that opportunity.

So how do you take a disparate group of people and make them productive?

If you haven’t had to work in a globally-distributed team before, it may be easy to fall into the trap that email and/or instant messaging are sufficient to keep the lines of innovation, communication, and productivity open.

They’re not.

Don’t get me wrong: email and instant messaging are wonderful technologies — I use them both heavily every day. However, they both have their limits. Email is notorious for losing the nuances of non-verbal communication that are inherent in face-to-face communication. Email is also bad when the subject matter is complex, requires rich descriptions (such as diagrams and pictures), and/or is a rapidly evolving discussion topic.

In the Open MPI project, we use a mixture of collaboration technologies, including some notable Cisco technologies:

  • Telepresence. This is the gold standard; Telepresence is video conferencing done right (I might be a little biased here :-) ). It’s HD video and “it’s like you’re sitting right here” audio, all integrated in a trivially-easy to use interface (seriously: it’s just like making a phone call — no more calling IT just to get your meeting started!).
  • Webex. Rich teleconferences have become the norm in our project; the ability to have everyone on the call view the same slides, document, or even an active code debugging session.  I can immediately share slides or even an Emacs/ssh debugging session from my desktop to remote colleagues.
  • The phone. When visual communication isn’t possible, verbal communication is definitely still better than email. A 15 minute phone call can save you multiple days worth of confusing emails. Phone calls aren’t as sexy as other collaboration technologies, so here’s two incredibly useful features that I love about my Cisco VOIP phone (again, I might be a little biased here):
    1. Single number reach (SNR): My colleagues don’t know my cell number because when they call my work phone number, it rings both my desk phone and my cell phone simultaneously. I answer whichever one is convenient.
    2. Cisco Unified Personal Communicator (CUPC): I run CUPC on my laptop when I’m traveling, and using the laptop’s speakers and microphone, I can get my voice mail, place and receive calls ”from” my work phone number, etc.

Admittedly, some of the above might be shameless plugs for Cisco technology, but I honestly believe that the use of them has made us work better in remote collaboration teams.  We work and function together better as a community because we don’t rely on email alone.

Put differently: not using good collaboration tools is like only using printf for software debugging.

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3 Comments.


  1. This is an issue that Australia has to deal with routinely, the “tyranny of distance” is an ongoing problem for distributed projects. We’ve been using Access Grid (and more recently Evo) for years to help with this and it does make a big difference.

    If you’ve got the sort of network where Access Grid works well (native multicast is great, but not required) then it’s wonderful, but if it breaks then it’s not so hot.

    But the important thing is that it’s free. :-)

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    • Jeff Squyres

      I used Access Grid back when I was in academia; it was hit or miss. When it was great, it was great. But 90%+ of the time we needed call IT just to get the meeting started… and even then, we sometimes gave up because it just didn’t work. :-(

      I love Telepresence — and not just because Cisco pays my paycheck. :-) It works and is *trivially easy* for the end user (i.e., just make a phone call, or just book the room in Outlook/Exchange/whatever).

      But overall, video is important — it’s a Tivo kind of thing. It’s hard to understand the importance and value of it until you’ve got one.

      One of my favorite importance-of-video stories is from 1-2 years ago when I was asked to participate in an all-day technical design meeting of a well-established engineering group (i.e., they all knew each other; I knew no one before the meeting). In the morning, we were relegated to just a teleconference — they had a polycom in the middle of their conference room. I had to concentrate deeply just to understand what was being said, who was saying it, what they meant, etc.

      After lunch, we switched to video (Telepresence). Suddenly, I could *see* who was talking (“oh, that’s the build system guy”, “that’s the app guy”, “that’s the QA guy”), and I could see all the non-verbal communication going on. I could actually *participate* in the afternoon meeting, whereas I was struggling just to *understand* the morning meeting.

      The difference in communication bandwidth between the morning/audio and afternoon/video was orders of magnitude (pun intended). It was an incredibly dramatic difference.

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  2. Yeah, certainly telepresence (we tend to call it just videoconferencing in Australia) needs to be more bullet proof, though AG and Evo have come a long way (I must admit to having used vic and rat back in the mid 90′s when they were still just UCL’s babies).

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