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Celebrating 30 Years of SCinet at SC20: Q&A with Former SCinet Chair Jackie Kern

30 years of scinet

Jackie Kern is a part-time consultant with the University of Illinois, providing leadership in data center assessment and support for the central infrastructure team after retiring from there in 2017. Jackie is a well-known leader in the SC community, with more than 20 years of experience as a volunteer. Her trajectory included being the first woman to serve as SCinet chair for SC07 in Reno, NV, and going on to serve as SC general chair for SC15 in Austin, TX.

During the past 30 years, SCinet has become the most powerful and advanced network on Earth for each week we’ve held the SC Conference, connecting the SC community to the world. This feature celebrates the dedicated volunteers whose leadership, tireless efforts, and enthusiasm have helped shape the SC experience over the last three decades.

How did you get your start volunteering with SCinet? What did the volunteer team and network look like at the time?

I had been working as a helper within the SC community for several years. My first engagement with SCinet was for SC04 in Pittsburg, PA, when I led SC Global. The SC Global program worked with sites around the world that provided Access Grid technology. This was a multicast networking environment with audio and video technology that allowed groups to virtually meet all over the world. We were able to set up a program and provide content, and at one point we successfully connected sites simultaneously on six continents.

Back then, the network was created by a team of 100 volunteers using 48 miles of fiber and the latest in advanced equipment and technologies, donated by more than 56 contributors. The total SCinet bandwidth was around 200 gigabits per second: that’s 2,000 times faster than the average home cable modem.

What was your experience as SCinet chair, including challenges and lessons learned?

My tenure as SCinet chair for SC07 in Reno, NV, included a fair share of interesting challenges. The first was that the conduit we needed to run fiber into the convention center was crushed. To fix it, we had to cut across the main strip in Reno, which had never been done before. On top of that, we had to wait for an annual motorcycle rally event to conclude before we could do the work! Within a week, we had to cut the road, lay new conduit, seal up the road, and then run fiber into the building so we could start and finish the final network build—just in time for the SC Conference.

During the conference, we also experienced a power bump that affected the entire section of the power grid. The power surged up and down three times. We shut down all the SCinet hardware as quickly as possible, and then systematically brought the equipment back online. Fortunately there were no ill effects from the power surges. As a final step, we divided the show floor into regions and sent teams to touch base with each and every exhibit booth to assess any damage and offer any needed assistance. Needless to say, there were many lessons to be learned, and all-in-all we had a very successful conference despite the challenges.

Jackie Kern and the SCinet volunteer team pose in front of the SCinet network operations center at SC07 in Reno, NV. The quilt in the foreground displays previous SC Conference logos.

How did your experience as SCinet chair shape the next steps in your career and your role in the HPC community?

SCinet was the first big component of the SC Conference that entrusted me with a high-stakes, technical deliverable—even though I had no formal training in the field of networking. I had worked with the SCinet volunteer team long enough that they knew I could bridge the gap between the technical knowledge of the network and the skills required to effectively communicate with other areas of HPC. This trust and success opened the door to many more opportunities for me to lead in the SC environment. It also led me to success within my home institution, as the lessons I learned in the HPC community served me well in the academic environment I worked in daily.

Is there an event or development from your time volunteering with SCinet that stands out as a pivotal achievement?

Being the first woman to lead the prestigious team as SCinet chair was such an honor. It gave me the confidence to continue to strive to do all I could to advance the HPC community. Each city SC visited offered new opportunities and challenges that taught me how to manage during chaos and how to plan and organize large, complex events. In addition, developing relationships with peers in the field from all over the globe was pivotal in my understanding of the many ways people communicate and collaborate. I was able to take those lessons back to my home institution to tailor my work with each facet of the university, whether it was faculty, researchers, administrators, or staff working to provide support for the mission of the university.

In your opinion, why is it important for SCinet to continue their diversity commitment in increasing the participation of women engineers?

I think SCinet’s commitment to diversity is critical. The more perspectives we can bring into problem-solving and development means more opportunities to find the right solutions faster and build bigger and better environments to meet our ever-changing needs. Diversity leads to new ways of thinking, new ideas of how to organize things, and more hands on deck to build a more secure and stable network that supports the growing needs for bandwidth, speed, and security.

In 2015 I was general chair of the SC Conference, and that was the same year SCinet introduced the NSF-funded Women in IT Networking at SC program, commonly known as WINS. The program invited women to participate in an apprenticeship experience with SCinet to engage women engineers and technologists to work with cutting-edge equipment and network with world-class colleagues. This effort continues today as the community supports and engages in the WINS program, encouraging women to participate in SCinet.

SCinet is as much about the human network as it is about the physical SC network. What three words would you use to describe the SCinet team and why?

The three words I would use to describe the SCinet team are driven, brilliant, and collaborative. Driven because I have never met another team that will work 24/7 to complete a task no matter how many obstacles are in the way. They are persistent in their pursuit to create the largest and fastest secure network on the planet for one week a year, and remarkably they continue to improve their offering each and every year. Brilliant because they always come up with creative solutions to unique challenges and requests. I have seen this group of individuals work together to do things we never imagined were possible. And collaborative because they work together no matter what. The SCinet team brings together volunteers from industry, government and education to build a robust network that supports everything the HPC community needs to showcase the great things they are doing around the world.

Learn more about SCinet at SC.

Amber Rasche, SC20 Communications, SCinet Liaison

Amber Rasche is a technical writer with N-Wave, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s enterprise network. In 2016 she had her first SCinet volunteer experience as a participant in the NSF-funded Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) program. SC20 marks her fourth year volunteering with the SCinet communications team.

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