The Purpose of Research Computing is the Research, not the Computing

Written by   on November 06, 2019

Absolutely everyone in research computing will agree that supporting research is their centre’s highest goal. And they’re not lying, but at many centres I’ve visited, they aren’t really correct, either.

The day-to-day work in such a centre, naturally enough, is all about technical operations - keeping the computers running, updating software, making sure /scratch has enough space free, answering emails. And of course, it has to be. But without internal champions actively and continually turning the focus back to the purpose of those activities - the research outcomes that those activities are meant to support - the internal, technical, activities become the purpose of the centre.

Pretty quickly, you end up with centres that are ranking their performance quarter to quarter with cluster utilization numbers, or having all researcher interactions occurring via “tickets” and measuring volume and mean-time-to-closure of those tickets (because shorter conversations with researchers are better, right?) And once that’s happened, it becomes very hard to change; bytes and flops and closure rates have become the reason for coming to work. It’s baked into the reporting, the funding, the staff’s annual performance review. Sure, many of these same centres do collect and in some way report publications, but if publication rates resulting from work with the centre are down 5% last year because two productive groups need new capabilities but the centre has decided to grow current capability, no one is getting an uncomfortable call from the boss at these centres. Ticket closure rates going down 5% though… maybe you’re getting a call.

Organizations that care about their clients make their offerings very clear.

It doesn’t take very long to spot centres like this, even from the outside. On their websites, most prominently of all, are the statistics that their biggest cluster premiered at position X on the Top 500, it has such-and-such much disk space, umpty-ump GPUs, and even more CPUs. There are elaborate multi-stage sign-up procedures which make the centre’s own reporting easy but getting a graduate student started on the cluster tedious. Their website will show a couple of dated research success stories, but if a researcher is visiting the website for the first time and wants to know basic facts relevant to them, things like “What is a list of services that the centre offers”, “Can you help my grad student do X and if so how long would it take”, “What is current wait times for resources/for software installation”, the researcher is out of luck - they’re just directed to a “contact us” email address (which, of course, feeds into a ticket tracker).

(Have you ever visited a restaurant webpage and needed like 4 or 5 clicks to get to the menu and their hours? If the restaurant took the menu off the website entirely and you instead had to file a ticket so you could ask specifically if they made spaghetti carbonara, that’s what most research computing centre websites are like for researchers. Organizations that care about their customers make their offerings very clear.)

The thing is, using metrics like utilization, tickets, storage and the like to measure how much research support is happening is madness, and we all know it’s madness. You can goose utilization numbers by letting researchers run jobs inefficiently, by prioritizing job size distributions that may or may not represent researcher needs, or by having staff do a lot of benchmarks “just to make everything’s still good”. You can keep ticket closure rates up by having something that should be clarified or automated or fixed and instead leaving it vague or manual or broken so that there’s a stream of tickets coming in that are easily closed; or by irrelevantly dicing what could be a long, productive discussion with a researcher into a series of shorter “tickets”.

It’s madness because neither utilization, nor ticket closure rates, nor storage use, nor even training course enrolment are valuable to research in and of themselves. They are inputs to the process of supporting research via computing; not the purpose, not the desired outcomes. Being guided by metrics of those inputs and just hoping that as long as those numbers stay good the best possible science outcomes will just happen of their own accord is an abdication of responsibility, and a squandering of scarce research-support resources.

And it’s worse than that, of course. Even a focus on inputs, if it was being honest, would focus on all the inputs, and certainly the most valuable and hardest-to-replace inputs - the technical staff. What’s the “utilization” of the staff? What fraction of that Ph.D. chemist’s time over there is spent actually enabling research projects, versus updating software packages or responding to “why is my job still in the queue” tickets? How much time does our data centre monitoring expert spend swapping memory and cables? Is that up this quarter, or down; and if it’s down, why? What fraction of the expertise of the support staff is being used? What is the meaningful contribution rate?

Inputs produce outpus which produce outcoms which produce impact.  The inputs are not what you should measure.

The reason that those staff input metrics aren’t being measured and others are is simple, and clarifying. The hardware inputs aren’t being used as metrics due to a (false) belief that they are meaningful in and of themselves, nor because of an (incorrect) understanding that they are they can be taken in a principled way as a proxy for the desired research outcomes. They’re used because they’re easy to gather. And they’re comfortable to use because they don’t really require centre managers to make any hard choices.

Focussing on the inputs instead of the outputs - or even better, outcomes - isn’t only a research computing thing, of course. It’s an absolutely classic mistake in a lot of sectors; a google search for focus on outcomes, not inputs returns 139 million results.

There are two prototypical reasons why it happens. If I were feeling in a twitter-ranty mood again, I might be tempted to draw the analogy to the first case - lack of competition, due to private- or public-sector monopolies, reducing the urgency of focusing on customer’s needs. You see this in internal departments of large organizations, where the “customer base” is locked in, or in other places where there’s no real competition (Hello most departments of motor vehicles, or cable companies, or Google Mail support!). These departments end up developing a relentless internal focus, having cryptic and opaque internal decision-making processes seemingly unrelated to what their clients actually want, and famously make clients jump through hoops to get their needs met. This isn’t caused by malevolence, or even indifference; it couldn’t be for it to be so widespread. It’s just that, absent any real driver to focus on customer outcomes, it is almost impossible to drive internal priorities towards anything other than internal efficiencies. Those few companies in this situation that do manage to maintain a focus on client outcomes are doing so by constantly expending almost heroic levels of unseen effort inside the organization.

But I don’t actually think that’s what driving some research computing centres inputs focus when it comes to operations and technical decision making. I think it comes almost from the other direction, the other classic case; that of small nonprofits, typically enormously concerned with their clients, who focus first on a very basic need and then don’t know how to generalize beyond that as they grow.

Imagine a small nonprofit, passionately committed to helping people, that gets its start meeting a very basic need - let’s say they’re providing before-school breakfasts to children in or near poverty. At that level, the activity is the outcome; they can count the number of breakfasts served, try to get better at serving breakfasts with a given amount of donations, work on raising money to fund more breakfasts, maybe expand to different schools or supplying a wider range of breakfasts to be inclusive of students with particular dietary needs. They are super committed to their clients.

But as that nonprofit starts expanding, it becomes clear their client base needs a wider range of services. It starts partnering with food banks, to help fight student hunger at home; its staff participate in some after-school tutoring programs. But it has no way to prioritize these activities. Is it a hunger-fighting nonprofit? Is it a help-underprivledged-students-succeed-at-school nonprofit? If they could double the tutoring efforts at the cost of slowing the growth of the breakfast program next year, is that the right thing to do, or not? How would they know?

This is a terrifying transition for a nonprofit to go through. Before, it knew exactly what it was doing, and had very clear metrics for success. In this intermediate stage, it probably has some earmarked resources to participate in the tutoring and foodbanks, and it touts that work, but it doesn’t know how to do anything but report on school breakfasts. To go beyond this means making choices about what it will prioritize - and more scarily, what it will not prioritize - and working on program evaluation plans for the much more ambitious but more ambiguous goals of “fighting hunger” or “helping students succeed at school”. Many nonprofits never make that transition. Some stay small and focussed, which works well but limits their impact; many stay in limbo in that uncomfortable intermediate state until they are overtaken by events or other organizations.

At most research computing centres, I think the story is more like that of the nonprofit. Except let’s be honest, while providing breakfasts is inherently meaningful and has very few organizations willing to do it, providing cycles and storage isn’t, and has many alternate providers.

But going beyond meeting the basic needs of providing research computing cycles and storage, which was a much greater need in the 90s than it is today, is genuinely hard. It’s very labour intensive - it requires going out to the entire research community you aim to support, including those who you’ve never had a working relationship with, and understanding needs. It’s very uncomfortable - you have to then prioritize those needs based on their value to the larger enterprise and to where you can make the most difference, and that means having awkward conversations bout not prioritizing other needs. And it’s incredibly uncertain - it means going from evaluations based on numbers on a dashboard that are largely under your control, to unfamiliar qualitative evaluations and doing the hard work of trying to measure research outcomes.

But there’s a relatively straightforward approach to get there starting from where you are. It takes some work, but just going through the process is clarifying.

  1. What do you do now? You know, broadly, what services you offer to researchers, you’ve just never had to make it explicit. Start to put together a very simple service catalog. It doesn’t have to be very complicated; figure out internally what services you offer, at quite a high level, in language that researchers would care about. Get staff to offer suggestions. For each service, for internal consumption only, figure out what’s involved in providing it - what are typical amount of hours involved, who has to coordinate with whom, etc..
  2. How do those services help researchers? Again, you have a broad sense of this, but make it concrete. Is it more publications? Higher-impact publications? Faster publication? Better collaboration opportunties? Higher funding success rates? Better job prospects for students and postdocs? More successful faculty or postdoc recruitment? Friendly users or your VPR can help with this. Come up with a handful that seem most important in your user community.
  3. Connect services and benefits. Come up with some concrete examples of how you’ve provided each of those benefits with the services you make available. You may find benefits that you can’t yet justify claiming you provide, or services you’ve forgotten about.
  4. Refine your services and benefits lists. Start talking about these benefits and services, in talks at user groups or when doing outreach to departments, new hires, incoming graduate student training, and the like. Find out which ones attract attention, which ones don’t. Ask for suggestions for new items for the lists, and new conncetions between the two.
  5. Start thinking about indicators and evaluation. Besides anecdotes, how could you convince your funder, or senior leadership at your institution, that you provide those benefits? How could you show you were getting better? How could you convince them that a 15% increase in funding would provide some meaningful improvement to research institution? The answer will depend on the benefits you’ve chosen, but there are lots of resources out there to help you with this. Closer to home, I absolutely promise you there are people at your instution who will talk to you about program evaluation until you want to pass out just to enjoy some quiet. What you come up with will seem quite different to you. They won’t be instruments with 3 decimal places of accuracy; they may be citation counts or randomly sampled surveys or qualitative interviws. Measuring research is hard - but everyone in research knows and understands this. Approaches like short surveys or interviews are labour intensive, but provide amazing information - they will provide a constant stream of incoming success stories that you can make use of, and less successful storis you can learn from.
  6. Start thinking about rebalancing your service offerings. Once you have these lists, and approaches to evaluations, then and only then do you have a principled way to make decisions about in which services to invest more, and in which to invest less. And you’ll have very convincing arguments to take to funders and leadership.

I get it that going through this process to the point where you can meaningfully what ask the right next thing to do to help research isn’t easy. It absolutely isn’t. It’s a lot of work, and while it is useful in many different ways, it still doesn’t make things easy - if anything, it forces you to confront tradeoffs and hard choices that focusing on inputs may have let you avoid. A centre that hasn’t been thinking this way for a while will have some low-hanging fruit that can be picked to start, but after that there will be multiple ways for a centre to be supporting research, and no clear answer which is the “best”. Making those choices will require knowing the strengths of the centre and knowing where those strengths are needed in the research community it serves — and not all research needs are the same! But those are questions that team leaders need to be wrestling with.

The alternative, just running a set of computers for the same friendly user group of people year after year, isn’t research support; it’s a hobby.