A collaboration of researchers, developers, and users working to make parallel tools responsive to user needs

Software tools for high performance computing (HPC) have not kept pace with the dramatic hardware improvements of recent years. Existing parallel tools do not match the preferences or working habits of the scientists and engineers who develop most HPC applications. They are complex, requiring a steep learning curve, and they vary widely from one parallel computer to another.

The Parallel Tools Consortium (Ptools) was founded to address this situation. It provides a forum where tool developers interact directly with potential users, helping to formalize and prioritize user requirements for tool support. By sponsoring projects to develop general tools that can execute reliably across a broad range of parallel and clustered computing systems, Ptools also promotes tool portability and consistency.

Ptools offers an infrastructure for collaboration. This includes channels for acquiring input from the HPC user community; the formation of working groups involving tool users, researchers and developers, the definition and user testing of standard tool components; and mechanisms for formalizing and distributing tool components for adoption by industry. We believe that this user-driven method for defining and developing projects will lead to tool products that are more usable and better supported, ultimately benefiting both HPC users and the HPC industry.

Membership in Ptools is free of charge and is open to all organizations and persons interested in parallel tools. Much of the Consortium’s work is carried out electronically.

How and Why Ptools Came About

A number of recent conferences and workshops have exposed the fact that tool use is appallingly low among the HPC user community, in spite of increasingly vocal demands for software support:

  • Current tools do not respond to the specific needs of scientific users, who must become quasi-computer scientists to understand and use the tools.
  • Tools vary widely across current parallel platforms, so the steep learning curve must be repeated each time a user migrates to a new machine.
  • The lack of specialized support for heterogeneous or scalable applications also deters users from investing the effort needed to parallelize scientific libraries or applications that could be used by third parties.

The Parallel Tools Consortium was established in November 1993 to address these issues. Ptools brings together representatives from the federal, industrial, and academic sectors to promote practical user-oriented tools that are portable across a full range of parallel computers and workstation clusters.

The parallel tools community is a varied one. Tool researchers are predominantly located at academic institutions and a few federally funded research centers. Tool implementors typically work in the industrial sector. Tool users tend to be clustered in the national laboratories, with increasing numbers in technical areas of industry.

Forging a collaboration between such diverse and professionally segregated groups is not a simple task. Yet each group brings expertise that is not duplicated in the others. Ptools provides a forum where these three groups cooperate to improve the quality and usability of parallel tools. 

The most visible activity of the Consortium is to sponsor tool development projects that are multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional in nature. Each Ptools project responds to a demonstrable need in the HPC user community (although they may apply to serial as well as parallel application development). The purpose of a project is to define a tool component that can be implemented consistently and reliably across a variety of HPC machines, and to ensure that the tool is easy to learn and use.

A Steering Committee, including the most active members of the user, researcher, and implementor communities, has responsibility for direction of the Consortium (see Table 1). The group is also charged with conducting procedures for formal approval and overseeing of Ptools projects and other sponsored activities. It maintains liaisons with a number of related standards efforts, including the MPI, PVM, and HPF working groups.

Army Research Lab and DOD Major Shared Resource Center
Digital Equipment Corporation
Hewlett-Packard Company
IBM Corporation
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory
NASA Ames Research Center
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Oregon State University
The Portland Group, Inc.
Sandia National Laboratories
San Diego Supercomputer Center
Silicon Graphics, Inc.

Table 1. Ptools Steering Committee

What Is a Ptools Project?

The primary activity of the Parallel Tools Consortium is to sponsor tool development projects. At the present time, sponsorship does not include funding. Rather, it provides an infrastructure for collaboration, including channels for acquiring input/feedback from a wide range of tool developers and tool users, as well as mechanisms for formalizing and distributing tool components.

Each project focuses on a tool component responding to a specific, well defined requirement arising from the user community. The research community participates by identifying or inventing technological capabilities that answer the user need. Implementors from at least two companies work with them to provide development support and to ensure that the component will work effectively and efficiently in production-level environments. Users perform testing and provide feedback on tool design. Together, the participants arrive at a standard definition for the tool component, a specification of its user interface, and a public implementation, intended to be a model for future, proprietary implementations.

A working group is formed to support each approved project. Membership is open to all participants in the Consortium, but must include representatives from each of the three sectors: tool users, tool researchers, and tool product implementors. Each group works semi-autonomously to define and prototype its component. The larger Ptools membership is used to test the tool and acquire user feedback.

The results of working groups are made available royalty-free for adoption by industry, in the form of fully supported, proprietary products. Working groups typically work with interested vendors to help them integrate the tool component into their existing tool infrastructures. Ptools components with graphical interfaces share a common look-and-feel. Reliance on MPI, HPF, and other current or soon-to-be standards is encouraged wherever appropriate. For information on current Ptools projects, see the Web pages.

How You Can Participate

The Parallel Tools Consortium welcomes the participation of everyone interested in achieving the goals of the Consortium. Membership does not require any fee. The Consortium maintains a general email reflector, as well as an email reflector for each approved Ptools project. 

Tools users, researchers, and implementors are encouraged to learn about the current working groups and collaborate in their activities. For Web sites, see the information below.

An annual meeting, held in late spring, serves as the primary point for face-to-face meetings. Other venues include a research exhibit and birds-of-a-feather session at the annual Supercomputing ‘9x meeting. From time to time, Ptools sponsors other types of meetings or workshops as well. We encourage you to take these opportunities to learn more about the Consortium’s work — and to provide your own feedback about our objectives and progress.

For More Information

Visit the Ptools Web pages at http://www.ptools.org. These pages, hosted at Oregon State University, provide up-to-date information on projects, meetings, and other activities.

The Ptools email reflector is open to all interested participants. It is located at ptools@ptools.org. To subscribe or unsubscribe to the list, send one of the following lines to majordomo@ptools.org: