Anniversary blog series (5/6)

 Anniversary blog series (5/6)

Q&A with Russell Slack, OCF Managing Director


In the next blog to celebrate our 20th anniversary, managing director, Russell Slack shares his experiences at OCF over the past 20 years and his predictions for the year ahead.


When did you join OCF and what was your role when you first started at the company?

I started at OCF at the very beginning, coming fresh from college with a diploma in computing. My apprenticeship at OCF was for six months and for want of a better term, I was a box shifter, responsible for ensuring the delivery paperwork was attached to the correct systems as they went out the door.

My first technical role was as a fully trained SGI Unix Systems Engineer responsible for the build and integration of these systems onto customers networks. I have rose tinted spectacles about this era in my OCF career. The systems we worked with were like nothing else on the market and I spent my days up and down the UK installing them into the most wide-ranging customer base from Playstation/Xbox developers to commercial flight simulator machine manufacturers and everything you could imagine in between. 

In the following decade at OCF, as we moved focus away from closed Unix Platforms to Open Source Linux, I brought several other far more skilled engineers into my team to help deliver more matured and robust HPC clusters and subsystems. I slowly transitioned into a managerial role, initially as Lead Engineer, then Operations Manager and finally Operations Director by 2012, which unfortunately meant my keyboard skills were awfully rusty and the team I had built could run rings around me.

What is your role now?

As Managing Director, I am now responsible for the ultimate success of OCF and for the satisfaction of OCF’s customers. I spend time supporting all of our departments, however since my background has always been technically focussed, it's been really interesting to work closely with Andrew, our sales director, to understand how best to support and develop the sales and presales effort of the business as well as let go of my subconscious and natural draw towards stepping into the operations and support departments at the first chance!

Whilst I know those departments are being looked after fantastically by Faye and Laurence, it's hard to let go of just wanting to jump in and help build a solution or support a customer when you’ve been doing that for so long.

What achievements of OCF are you most proud of?

As a techie at heart, obviously becoming accredited in our partners’ technologies and earning a recognised certification for the effort is fantastic, add that to being able to then go and deliver solutions based on the skills you’ve learnt is a great feeling.

Year on year we’ve had so many exciting projects we’ve worked on, from supporting the design and delivery of F1 championship winning cars to delivering cutting edge cancer research tooling that helps save lives. Knowing myself and the OCF team are enabling our customers to solve their challenges and changing the world for the better is incredibly rewarding.

I’m also very proud of the efforts of our R&D team over the last 18 months, who’ve put a huge amount of work into standardising and enhancing our best practices stack of cluster management tools. This is going to ensure that moving forward, we can roll out our solutions quicker, allowing customers to go into production service much sooner, and in parallel it allows us to provide a quicker and more comprehensive issue identification and resolution plan, because the software stack and any potential service issues are not unique between each customer as it has been for many years.

However, I think over the years though I’m most proud of the team I’ve built and watched grow into extremely capable professionals in the HPC industry in their own right. I’ve always been an advocate of ‘delegate to elevate’ and supporting someone’s passions if it can help progress the individual or OCF in the longer term and I think that has reaped rewards for OCF many times over.

What did the HPC environment look like 20 years ago and how has it progressed over the years?

When we were initially building clusters, from a software perspective, it was effectively a very immature set of tools used to discover, orchestrate, and manage the system, and software applications on top were very much developed or handled by the customer themselves.

Nowadays, the open-source community and commercial software providers have put huge amounts of effort into providing tooling for the everyday systems administrator and end users who can both now jump on quickly and get using the service. This ease of access and powerful management tooling absolutely maximises the usage of every spare cycle of a system. These mature and widely supported tools now allow huge levels of service utilisation and flexibility to the user base to change things on the fly to suit the dynamic nature of their work patterns.

In my mind, technology 20 years ago was a little less predictable in terms of what CPU architecture or network interconnect were on the horizon. Certainly, the concepts of GPU computing or cloud bursting for HPC weren’t around when I was building our systems. It's come a long way and far more of a service for all intensive computing needs, rather than a perceived system that only the most advanced computing experts could get to grips with and use effectively.

Hardware wise, apart from GPUs being included in the arsenal of a HPC system, we still need as many CPUs as affordable, as much highly responsive storage in terms of its read and write capability, and both of these pillars of an HPC service need to be underpinned by a super-fast network interconnect to pass the data between the two, with a little latency as possible.

Obviously, there is a lot more packed into a smaller space nowadays, which is great in terms of customers not requiring a huge amount of data centre space to house these beasts, but it does create headaches for providing a lot of power to feed the system and obviously all this super dense computing infrastructure creates a massive amount of heat.

On the latter point, heat management has been interesting to watch over the years. I personally remember having to fit big clunky air baffles to IBM BladeCenters in an attempt to channel red hot air out of clusters and these creative solutions have evolved into massive exhaust ducting, IT rack rear door heat exchangers, where water is now being brought very close to the IT infrastructure. In the last few years, we have been installing OCF systems with direct water cooling straight onto the internal components.

How has the company and/or customer needs changed in your view over the past 20 years?

I’ve noticed customers’ ‘wants’ have grown pretty much on a yearly basis, tenders and quotes could be very sparse in requirements many years ago, and then optional features or capabilities have turned into mandatory ones. As such, OCF has had to expand its portfolio of technologies to fulfil a customer’s solution requirement, and likewise professional services and technical support have had to expand and mature in order to innovate and provide effective and more comprehensive support on what we’ve delivered. 

I recall a time when HPC services were very much classed as a research tool, or toy if you will, which at times could mean a system was offline due to issues for days or weeks until a customer had time to look at the issue. Nowadays, the systems OCF build are a critical requirement to our customers’ business needs and uptime is paramount. Therefore, effective and comprehensive support from OCF is an absolute must.

What’s in store for this year and any big predictions?

Industry wise, I’m not sure there will be many big changes. From OCF’s perspective, we’ve taken the last two years, whilst the pandemic caused havoc, to review ourselves and our processes, to identify what we can do better to serve our customers.

So, this year, as the world hopefully goes back to a version of normal, it's time to put our improvements into practice and deliver more value to our customer base as well as gathering critical feedback on how well we’re doing. I’d like to predict more customer visits and sitting around a table rather than endless zoom calls from home.


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