Gropp wins SIAM/ACM CS&E prize for PETSc numerical library

By Kim Gudeman   ::   10/02/2014 - 08:28

William Gropp, a Siebel Chair in Computer Science at the University of Illinois, has been awarded the SIAM/ACM prize in Computational Science & Engineering (CS&E) for his work on the Portable, Extensible Toolkit for Scientific Computation (PETSc), a numerical library for the scalable solution of scientific applications modeled by partial differential equations. PETSc “has transformed the way large-scale software libraries are developed, supported, and used within the CS&E community,” according to a SIAM/ACM press release, and its impact “has been felt worldwide.”

Gropp and his colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory began developing PETSc, which also received an R&D 100 Award in 2009, in 1990 after struggling to execute increasingly complex applications using existing software libraries. The software was funded through the Dept. of Energy, which has listed PETSc as one of its top 10 advances in computational science in 2008.

“We found existing numerical libraries weren’t able to handle a certain class of methods,” said Gropp, director of the Parallel Computing Institute at Illinois. “The way we organized the software made it much easier for people to adapt it to their needs than other libraries.”

Previous numerical libraries coupled the code with the data structure. The PETSc researchers separated the two, making the software more flexible. The concept wasn’t new to computer science, but the application to numerical libraries was novel.

While the research behind PETSc made new contributions to the fields of mathematics and computer science, the library also laid the groundwork for many other scientific discoveries. It was used in computational fluid dynamics research that claimed a Gordon Bell Prize in 1999, and has also been used to model the mechanics of bones and to solve inverse problems in seismology.  Cray released an optimized version that is currently running on the Blue Waters petascale computer, housed at Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Gropp shares the honor with Satish Balay, Jed Brown, Matthew Knepley, Lois Curfman McInnes, Barry Smith, and Hong Zhang. The prize of $5,000 is awarded biennially by SIAM and ACM in recognition of outstanding contributions to the development and use of mathematical and computational tools and methods for the solution of science and engineering problems. The prize will be awarded at the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in March 2015.

Gropp said he has been amazed at the range of applications that has utilized PETSc over the years.

“We have had people use it to write mathematical models for how to stamp parts of cars and others who have used it to model the movement of brain tumors in the skull,” he said. “It’s still widely relevant today.”