James Botts Reflects on a Decade at the State of the Art
July 10, 2023
By Elizabeth Ball
When NERSC HPC engineer James Botts came to NERSC in 2013, the now-retired Edison supercomputer was just coming into production. Cori, the following system, was barely in the planning stages. (It was also recently retired.) And Perlmutter, NERSC’s flagship system currently being deployed, wasn’t yet a word on DOE’s lips. In ten years, much about HPC has changed, and Botts was there for all of it, helping NERSC to lead and adapt – but on June 29, he retired as the longest-serving current member of the Computational Systems Group (CSG).
Botts came to NERSC after a career in industry, drawn by the center’s reputation and the experience of working on some of the largest and most powerful supercomputers in the country. As an HPC engineer, he has worked to ensure that the software on NERSC systems runs smoothly and serves the needs of NERSC users. Because of the length of his time at NERSC and the number of systems he engaged with, he cited the ongoing challenge of staying at the cutting edge of an ever-evolving field as one of the benefits of the job.
“There were always new things to learn each time we had a new system at NERSC – the lifecycle is approximately three to five years,” said Botts. “Things have changed drastically both in hardware and software. With this job, you keep up with the latest in both. You're doing the state of the art, and that’s always interesting.”
Among the long list of learnings he rattles off from his decade at NERSC – following the user community from Perl to Python, working with IBM’s General Parallel File System – Botts cites the task of learning the nuts and bolts of large supercomputers as an ongoing project.
“Anything to do with managing a large Cray, and then HP, system was new to me,” he said. “That includes both managing it and learning about the architecture, learning about the high-speed network, which is the core of the system, which is how computers talk to each other. Learning the intricacies of their implementation of it was all new to me.”
In particular, he remembers enjoying troubleshooting the initial implementation of HPE Shasta software, experimenting and using his skills to optimize it for NERSC users, and eventually coming up with a pathway to the current implementation.
“One fun project was the development process of the management stack for the latest generation of HPE supercomputers,” said Botts. “It’s been collaborative between us and the vendor. Originally we were given a rack of computer equipment and very basic and very buggy ways of deploying it, and I was the person initially leading that. The interfaces were totally different than they are now, and I was messing around and evaluating and trying to improve them while integrating with the needs of our user community. That was a good one.”
Since 2020, Botts has been working remotely from Maine, where he and his wife moved during the COVID-19 pandemic with plans to retire in the future. Settled just down the road from the easternmost point in the United States, he says long-term plans are yet to be determined, but in the near term he looks forward to working on his house, getting more exercise, and traveling – to Canada, which he can see from his window, and to Europe.
While he’s enjoying East Coast life, colleagues will miss Botts and his contributions to the CSG – technological, personal, and musical (NERSC staff called him “the most accomplished singer at NERSC,” though he says opportunities for singing are rare in rural Maine). Colleagues call him a leader and a mentor who will leave a significant void behind him when he goes.
"James is the longest-serving member of CSG,” said CSG group lead Doug Jacobsen. “He's mentored every single current member of the team in 'how to CSG'. James in particular was one of the key people I joined the team to work with – he guided me a lot.
About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high-performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the NERSC Center serves more than 7,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.