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The NCCS’s operational orchestrator of high-performance computing: Ashley Barker

Ashley Barker. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL

At the National Center for Computational Sciences, Ashley Barker enjoys one of the least complicated–sounding job titles at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory: section head of operations. But within that seemingly ordinary designation lurks a multitude of demanding roles as she oversees the complete user experience for NCCS computer systems.

And now, with a new title addendum — deputy director of ORNL’s recently announced next-generation supercomputer project, OLCF-6 — Barker’s duties are fast becoming ever more involved. But that’s a good thing for both Barker and the NCCS.

“I really enjoy working on collaborative and complex projects,” Barker said. “I’m a planner at heart and am excited about the opportunity to take on this role that will help me have a bigger impact on this incredible organization that I’ve been a part of for many years.” 

Barker’s main job has already had a big impact — and it would keep most people working overtime daily. Her staff of 35 in the NCCS Operations Section is divided into four groups that cover a lot of territory: Software Services Development, which develops and maintains large software applications and services; System Acceptance and User Environment, which ensures the functionality, performance, and usability of new NCCS systems; User Assistance, which provides technical support, training, and documentation to users; and User Access, Outreach, and Communications, which showcases NCCS capabilities and user research accomplishments.

With more than 2,000 NCCS users around the world — from ORNL and other government agencies to computational scientists in academia and industry — Barker stays quite busy making sure they have the tools and know-how they need to conduct groundbreaking science.

“My goal is to make the user experience as good as I can,” Barker said. “At the end of the day, when I receive an email from someone who’s like, ‘Thank you, I’m so appreciative of your team’s help,’ that for me is one of the most rewarding things that can happen in my day job — knowing that we hit the mark.”

Barker’s career in high-performance computing has strayed far afield from her original intention of becoming an English teacher. As an English major at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, she took a part-time job in the university’s IT department. She started out as a student assistant to the director — but soon found herself in the thick of helping to manage operations for the short-staffed unit.

The internet was just starting to become prevalent on campus, so the university created a network services division to go out and outfit all the offices at the university with the necessary equipment to connect to the network. At that time, you actually had to add Ethernet cards to computers and printers to get them to connect to the network — they didn’t come that way out of the box,” Barker said. “We were going to offices and pulling cables through attics and outfitting equipment rooms with network gear.”

After graduating from UT, she was offered a full-time job managing the IT department’s help desk, which supported 26,000 students across Tennessee. In 2008, she applied for a group leader position in the User Assistance Group at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility that’s part of the NCCS at ORNL. This job launched her into another new career trajectory: HPC.

Although user support might sound a lot like user assistance, Barker faced a new world of responsibilities at the OLCF that went far beyond ensuring routers were connected and students and faculty of the university could use their computing resources.

“It was very much a shift for me from a career perspective — I didn’t have an HPC background. I had a lot to learn, but luckily the organization took a chance on me, and here I am,” said Barker, who was promoted to lead the Operations Section in 2020. “The way I think about it, Operations is here to ensure that the systems — both compute and data — the documentation, the websites and the training are the best that they can be for the users of our facility.”

That goal encompasses a lot of details to track and is accomplished by the Operations Section’s four complementary groups. Each has a different focus, but they work together to provide the best possible user experience, whether it’s training or it’s problem-solving.

“Almost nothing is done inside a single group — it takes a village,” Barker said. “The team of people I get to work with is phenomenal. I have some of the most outstanding people from both their technical prowess and their artistic prowess — we cover a lot of different capabilities. But they’re also just incredible people who believe in what we’re doing and contribute in any way that they can.”

As the deputy director of OLCF-6, Barker will support project director Matt Sieger with procuring and deploying the OLCF’s next supercomputer system. The choices the OLCF-6 team make for the system’s architecture, hardware vendors, power and cooling infrastructure, and more could set the direction for what supercomputing looks like in the next decade.

Barker will bring her multitasking skills to the multiyear project, work with OLCF project teams throughout the process, and track their progress in terms of schedule, scope, and budget.

“I’ve been part of the OLCF projects to procure and deploy systems such as Titan, Summit and more recently Frontier. These projects take many years to plan and execute and involve many people across organizations with vastly different expertise,” Barker said. “I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by and learn from incredible leaders, such as Buddy Bland, Kathlyn Boudwin, Justin Whitt, Terri Quinn, Katie Antypas and Susan Coghlan, who have led these vastly complex projects for DOE. And as a longtime user-support advocate, I plan to lend my expertise to help ensure we deliver a system that is optimized for our current and future users."

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.