Archive for February, 2017

February 27th, 2017

The job title ‘Research Software Engineer’ (RSE) wasn’t really a thing until 2012 when the term was invented in a Software Sustainability Institute collaborations workshop. Of course, there were lots of people doing Research Software Engineering before then but we had around 200 different job titles, varying degrees of support and career options tended to look pretty bleak.  A lot has happened since then including the 2016 EPSRC RSE Fellows, the first international RSE conference and a host of University-RSE groups popping up all over the country.

In my talk, Is your Research Software Correct?, I tell the audience ‘If you need help, refer to your local RSE team. All good Universities have a central RSE team and if yours does not…..I refer you back to the word ‘good” Always leads to healthy debate when talking at an institution that’s yet to get involved :)

Centrally funded, University-wide RSE teams are useful because they offer a way to maintain a pool of expertise that can be costed into grants. It’s the model we are starting to employ at University of Sheffield following its success at trailblazing sites such as UCL and Manchester.

For this model to work, it is vital that we collaborate with researchers on getting RSE time costed into grants. In turn, researchers worry that they are asking funders for ‘something a bit strange’ which might lead to their project being turned down.

Asking for RSE Support in your grant is a Good Idea

There are two main arguments that I use when attempting to alleviate these concerns. The first is that we are quite successful in obtaining RSE funding, even in areas that you might not expect. The second is to point to funding calls where the funding council explicitly recommends RSE costing to be considered where appropriate.

The EPSRC have led the way in the UK with its RSE fellowship call, funding the Software Sustainability Institute (these days its funded by 3 research councils including BBSRC and ESRC) and various other initiatives.

Earlier this month, I was very happy to see that the BBSRC have explicitly mentioned Research Software Engineers in one of their latest calls: Machine Learning to Generate New Biological Understanding. In the call, the BBSRC say:

We note the significant contribution of staff such as Research Software Engineers (see external links) to interdisciplinary computational projects such as machine learning, and supports recognition of their contributions and encourages applicants to cost them appropriately on applications to this highlight.

I feel that this is a great move by the BBSRC and hope to see other funding councils follow their lead in future.

February 21st, 2017

My new toy is a 2017 Dell XPS 15 9560 laptop on which I am running Windows 10. Once I got over (and fixed) the annoyance of all the advertising in Windows Home, I quickly starting loving this new device.

To get a handle on its performance, I used GPUBench in MATLAB 2016b and got the following results (This was the best of 4 runs…I note that MTimes performance for the CPU (Host PC), for example, varied between 130 and 150 Glops).

  • CPU: Intel Core I7-7700HQ (6M Cache, up to 3.8Ghz)
  • GPU: NVIDIA GTX 1050 with 4GB GDDR5


I last did this for my Retina MacBook Pro and am happy to see that the numbers are better across the board. The standout figure for me is the 1206 Gflops (That’s 1.2 Teraflops!) of single precision performance for Matrix-Matrix Multiply.

That figure of 1.2 Teraflops rang a bell for me and it took me a while to realise why…..

My laptop vs Manchester University’s old HPC system – Horace

Old timers like me (I’m almost 40) like to compare modern hardware with bygone supercomputers (1980s Crays vs mobile phones for example) and we know we are truly old when the numbers coming out of laptop benchmarks match the peak theoretical performance of institutional HPC systems we actually used as part of our career.

This has now finally happened to me! I was at the University of Manchester when it commissioned a HPC service called Horace and I was there when it was switched off in 2010 (only 6 and a bit years ago!). It was the University’s primary HPC service with a support team, helpdesk, sysadmins…the lot.  The specs are still available on Manchester’s website:

  • 24 nodes, each with 8 cores giving 192 cores in total.
  • Each core had a theoretical peak compute performance of 6.4 double precision Gflop/s
  • So a node had a theoretical peak performance of 51.2 Gflop/s
  • The whole thing could theoretically manage 1.2 Teraflop/s
  • It had four special ‘high memory’ nodes with 32Gb RAM each

Good luck getting that 1.2 Teraflops out of it in practice!

I get a big geek-kick out of the fact that my new laptop has the same amount of RAM as one of these ‘big memory’ nodes and that my laptop’s double precision CPU performance is on par with the combined power of 3 of Horace’s nodes. Furthermore, my laptop’s GPU can just about manage 1.2 Teraflop/s of single precision  performance in MATLAB — on par with the total combined power of the HPC system*.

* (I know, I know….Horace’s numbers are for double precision and my GPU numbers are single precision — apples to oranges — but it still astonishes me that the headline numbers are the same — 1.2 Teraflops).


February 9th, 2017

I’ve been a OS X user for just over 3 years when I migrated from a laptop that dual booted Windows 7 and Linux. I like my MacBook Pro a lot but time moves on and I needed a new laptop. For reasons that I’ll write about in more depth another time, I’ve decided to move back into the Microsoft ecosystem for a while and try using Windows 10 on a Dell XPS 15 as my daily driver.

Windows is a lot better for Research Software Engineers than it used to be (See Bash on Windows: The scripting game just changed for an example of why) and I find myself enjoying using it rather than suffering it just because my clients use it. Mostly!

Windows is cheap and tacky

So why am I disappointed? In short, its because Windows still hasn’t grown up. It’s cheap, tacky and is constantly trying to sell me stuff.

It started off in the lock screen

Windows 10 nagging advert

Other people were quick to agree. Adverts in Windows 10 are a problem


The Start Menu is also full of third party applications that I’d rather not have…Games like Candy Crush Soda Saga and Royal Revolt 2 for example. These used to be the sort of bloatware you’d get with OEM’s when you bought a new, cheap laptop and the solution used to be ‘Wipe the laptop and install a clean copy of Windows’ but now the bloatware is coming from Windows itself.  Sure, I can uninstall it but I shouldn’t have to.

We’re not in Mac OS X anymore toto!

Cleaning up Windows’ act

How to disable Windows 10 built in advertising   from HowToGeek can help turn off all of this tat and others have pointed to scripted options that I’ve not tried myself (I suggest caution before running PowerShell scripts you do not understand).

All of this shouldn’t be necessary. I paid over £2,000 for this laptop and I expect a professional experience from the operating system that it comes with.

I expected better. I’m disappointed.