Spack has been around for a while, and we’ve always felt like we have a pretty good sense of the community through channels like GitHub, Slack, and our Google group. However, the project is getting larger, and we wanted to better understand the community’s needs with more structured feedback. Spack is funded by the NNSA ASC Program and the U.S. Exascale Computing Project (ECP), and we wanted to understand the different needs of ASC, ECP, and other types of users.
So, this year, we ran our first ever Spack user survey. Read on to see the results.
About the survey
The survey has 26 multiple-choice questions and 6 longer-form questions. It was open from September 28 to October 9, and there were 169 respondents. We advertised to the broadest audiences we knew how to reach. Specifically, we advertised the survey through:
- Our Google group (402 members);
- Slack (~900 members);
- Twitter (~1,100 followers);
- the ECP-wide mailing list (ECP is ~1,000 people); and
- the El Capitan Center of Excellence (COE) mailing list.
There’s probably a lot of overlap between these lists, so this may not be as wide an audience as it would seem. It’s probably biased towards U.S. users, as the people on the mailing lists are very U.S.-centric. So, while the sample is by no means scientific, we know at least that it covers a lot of Spack users.
The results are summarized here, but you can get the full data set and the scripts we used to generate these charts here. There are a lot of results – let us know if you find anything interesting that we missed.
Thanks to the 169 users who filled out the survey, both for this feedback and for your continuing contributions to Spack! This project wouldn’t be possible without the community!
In this section of the survey, we tried to understand the composition of the Spack community.
ECP and Spack
The first question we asked was whether respondents were part of ECP.
ECP represents just over a third of the community (~35%, or 61 of 169 respondents). It includes people from both sides of the U.S. Department of Energy – NNSA laboratories like LLNL, LANL, and Sandia; and Office of Science, laboratories like ANL, ORNL, LBL, PNNL, BNL, and others. Under ECP, the Spack team is focusing on delivering a software stack for the first U.S. exascale machines, which includes upcoming systems like:
- LBL’s Perlmutter: AMD CPU / NVIDIA GPU (pre-exascale)
- ANL’s Aurora: Intel CPU / Intel GPU
- ORNL’s Frontier: AMD CPU / AMD GPU
- LLNL’s El Capitan: AMD CPU / AMD GPU
All of these are HPE/Cray systems, but the hardware is quite diverse (particularly the GPUs). We wanted to see whether the users at the bleeding edge of HPC had significantly different needs from the Spack community as a whole. So, in most of the following sections, we present responses for Spack and for ECP separately.
What kind of user are you?
We asked users what their role was at their organization.
Spack was originally targeted at user support teams and system administrators, but by far the largest parts of the community are end users (scientists/researchers) installing software on HPC machines (35%) and software developers (41%). System administrators were ~11% of the overall community, and user support staff were only 8%. In ECP, this is even more pronounced – only a small fraction of respondents identified as system administrators, and developers were nearly 43% of the ECP user base.
Part of the absence of sysadmins may be that at DOE labs, administrators don’t typically handle installation of user software – that’s left to dedicated support teams who engage with users. Admins (at least in DOE) tend to focus on keeping the machines running and managing the host OS underneath Spack.
If you compare this to EasyBuild’s latest survey (slide 13), you’ll see that the composition of the communities is very different. In EasyBuild’s similar survey, only 3% of the respondents identified as developers, and only 9% were scientists. User support and admins were 26% and 53% of the EasyBuild user base, respectively.
Where do you work?
We next asked users where they work.
The community as a whole is diverse. Slightly less than a third (31%) are from Universities. 37.6% are from DOE NNSA and Office of Science laboratories (more than all of ECP – so parts of DOE not in ECP are included). Other public research labs make up 18% of Spack users, and ~13% are from private companies and cloud providers. Within ECP, a large majority of users (76%) were from DOE labs, but there was still some participation from public labs and universities.
Comparing again with EasyBuild’s survey (slide 13), we can see that EasyBuild has a much smaller percentage of users from national computing centers (13% vs. 37%), and a larger percentage of users from universities (55%). It is hard to tell exactly how the proportions compare, as EasyBuild’s survey provided a “university research group” option, while in our survey that is likely spread across the “University HPC center” and “public research lab” categories.
What country are you in?
Just under 2/3 of Spack users are in the United States, and nearly exactly 2/3 are from North America when our two Canadian respondents are included. 27% are from Europe, 5% from Asia, and there was one respondent each from the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) and South America (Argentina). Within ECP (which is a U.S. DOE project), the proportion is much higher – nearly 97% are from the U.S.
What are your primary application areas?
These results are mostly as we expected – most Spack users (~80%) are doing traditional HPC and simulation. In the broader community around 30% are doing computer science research, but within ECP around 50% are doing CS research. In ECP, AI and bioinformatics were noticeably less emphasized than in the broader Spack community. Interestingly, compiler testing was the 7th most popular application area outside ECP, but the 4th most popular inside ECP. Only one user reported using Spack for web applications.
How did you find out about Spack?
Both in and outside ECP, about half of Spack users hear about the tool via word of mouth. This result made us pretty happy – we think it means that users are very willing to recommend Spack to friends. After word of mouth, 22% people heard of Spack because it was used at their site. Within ECP this was slightly more likely at 30%.
24% of users heard about Spack from outreach activities: tutorials, BOF sessions, and presentations.
How long have you been using Spack?
Spack usage has been growing over time, and the number of users who join the community each year is increasing. Most of the overall community has been using Spack for less than two years. We also see this effect in the number of contributors to the project on GitHub. In 2018, after the project had been publicly available for 4 years, there were around 300 contributors. 2 years later, there are nearly 700.
Within ECP, the community is older – most people started using Spack in ECP 2-3 years ago. There has been less new adoption since then, which we attribute to Spack’s rapid adoption in ECP. Spack caught on quickly there, people have continued to use it, and there is not a large influx of users into ECP. The population stays mostly the same over time.
Have you contributed to Spack?
Around 75% of users who responded have contributed to Spack in some way or another, and most of those (60%) have contributed a package. Nearly 40% of users are active on Slack, and nearly 40% have filed issues on GitHub.
It’s notable that Slack discussions are far more active than the Spack mailing list – users seem to want to engage live rather than sending emails back and forth.
Not many users (~10%) have contributed to documentation, but even this small amount helps the project – this is around 16 people.
There don’t seem to be any special takeaways here for ECP, except that ECP users seem to be slightly more likely to contribute a package (nearly 70% have done so).
Having characterized the user base, we moved on to finding out how they use Spack.
What version(s) of Spack do you use?
Spack users like to be on the bleeding edge, and it shows up the versions
of Spack they use. Just under 60% of users are using the
of Spack, and the number is higher (~65%) in ECP. The next most popular
version was 0.15, which was the latest Spack release at the time
of this survey.
Comparatively few users were on older versions, though a very small number of people were using 0.10. A lot has happened since then – 0.10 was released in January 2017, and there were around 1,000 packages then (vs. 5,000 now). We hope the users still on 0.10 will upgrade – both for features and for package fixes.
What OS do you use Spack on?
Spack is targeted at HPC, so it’s no surprise that nearly 100% of users are using it on Linux. What users sometimes forget is that Spack also works on macOS. Around 35% of all users run Spack on their macs, and over half the users within ECP are also running it on macOS. A small number of users (<10%) are running Spack within the Windows Subsystem for Linux. We don’t test there, but we’re told that Spack works fine in the WSL environment.
If we look at the responses in more detail, we can see the specific Linux distributions that users are running. The most popular, by far, are CentOS and Red Hat. In ECP, Red Hat is especially popular. Ubuntu is the next most popular after these, then macOS, then other Linux distributions and WSL. SuSE is more popular within ECP than in the broader community, likely because it is the Linux distribution that most Cray systems are built on.
How many software installations have you done with Spack in the past year?
Almost 28% of the community has done over 200 software installations, and over 12% have done over 1,000 installs. The ECP numbers are similar to the general population, but the distribution is slightly shifted towards larger numbers of installations.
What Python version(s) do you use to run Spack?
Support for Python 2 ended January 1, 2020, but nearly a year later, around 40% of Spack users are still using Python 2.7. 4 users are even using Python 2.6. Python 2.7 is still the system Python version on many operating systems, including Red Hat 7 and CentOS 7, and on Red Hat and CentOS 6 (which are still used at some sites) the default is 2.6.
While many projects can pick their version of Python, Spack is often the tool people use to install newer versions of Python, and we don’t want to make users use another installer just to install Spack’s dependencies. We want it to work out of the box, so we try to make Spack work with the system Python everywhere.
How bad would it be if Spack dropped support for Python 2.6?
We asked whether it would be OK for us to drop Python 2.6, and we found that there are still around 4 hold-outs who really need Spack to work on Python 2.6, and over 20% of people would be at least mildly inconvenienced by this change. For the time being, we’ll keep supporting Python 2.6, but you can probably expect its deprecation to be announced sometime within the next year, as the last few Red Hat 6 installations dwindle.
How bad would it be if Spack only worked with Python 3?
Eventually, we’d like to drop Python 2 entirely, but with 40% of users still using 2.7, and with 36% of users likely to be bothered by the shift, we’ll hold off on dropping 2.7, as well. Interestingly, while ECP users were less likely than the broader community to completely oppose dropping 2.6, they were more likely than the community to oppose dropping 2.7.
How do you get installed Spack packages into your environment?
The most common way to use Spack packages is still through modules, and
module usage seems to be split about evenly between Lmod and TCL modules,
with some overlap. We were surprised to see that the
spack load command
is the second most popular way to use Spack packages, only a few
percentage points behind modules.
We don’t have data on past usage of
spack load, but we’ve tried to make
it easy to use everywhere, and this may have caused its usage to
increase. In particular, in earlier Spack releases,
required modules in order to work (it was a thin layer around
load). As of
early 2020, it only requires Spack’s own environment support – so you
can easily load a one-off package on your mac or personal Linux box where
you don’t already have modules installed.
spack load, around 35% of users are making use of Spack
environments to load groups of packages together. Like
Spack environments require no support from the module system – they work
regardless of where Spack is deployed and provide a more portable
alternative to loading environment modules.
Which Spack features do you use?
ranked below modules for simply getting packages into
environments are actually the most widely used single feature of Spack
(at least on our list here). Around 2/3 of users say they use
environments. environments can be used to add packages to
maintain a list of dependencies via
spack.yaml, to version a
spack.yaml environment in a repo, to do
to reproduce builds with
spack.lock, to configure and run
build container images.
We wanted to get a sense of what users will need from Spack in the coming year, so we asked about upcoming architectures, Spack features, and events.
Which CPUs do you expect to use with Spack in the next year?
Nearly everyone in the Spack community plans to run on Intel CPUs in the next year, and around 80% expect to use Spack to build for AMD systems. Just over 40% of users will run on ARM and just under 40% will run on Power. Within ECP, the percentage of users that want to run on any of the non-Intel CPUs is larger – as you might expect, ECP is targeting a more diverse set of architectures. There were many more ECP users who expected to run on Power than in the broader community, likely because the current top two U.S. systems, Summit and Sierra, are Power machines.
We can’t draw a fair comparison with EasyBuild on this question, as EasyBuild’s survey asked users what CPUs they were currently using rather than what they expected to be using in the next year, and their survey was done a year ago, and things are changing fast in HPC. So, take it with a grain of salt, but the difference is still worth mentioning. In the EasyBuild survey (slide 26), the vast majority of users were similarly running on Intel machines. But, less than 20% were using AMD chips, less than 5% were using Power, and only one user reported using ARM. It’s likely their numbers for AMD and ARM will increase on the next survey.
Which GPUs do you expect to use with Spack in the next year?
All users in the Spack community expect to run on GPUs in the next year, and over 90% plan to build for NVIDIA GPUs. Around half of the overall community expects to build for AMD GPUs, and around 30% expect to build for Intel GPUs. Within ECP, the percentage of users planning to run on NVIDIA GPUs is very slightly lower, likely because NVIDIA will not be the GPU on any of the initial three exascale machines. Aurora will be an Intel GPU system and both Frontier and El Capitan will use AMD GPUs. As you might expect, 80% of ECP users expect to use AMD GPUs and over half expect to use Intel GPUs.
GPU usage in the EasyBuild community was similarly high – 96.5% of EasyBuild users were compiling software for GPUs – so it’s pretty clear that GPUs have become pervasive in HPC.
Which compilers do you expect to use with Spack in the next year?
As you might expect given the CPU and GPU results, Spack users
anticipate using a very wide range of compilers.
gcc is still king,
with almost 100% of users expecting to use it, and LLVM and Intel
compilers are next on the list.
Interestingly, only around 60% planned to use
nvcc, and a bit more than
40% planned to use NVIDIA’s HPC compilers. Given that over 90% of users
said they expected to build on NVIDIA GPUs, we’re tempted to explain the
discrepancy by saying that a large percentage of users expect to use
NVIDIA GPUs not through CUDA directly, but through GPU-optimized
libraries or through compiler capabilities like OpenMP offload. The same
can probably be said for AMD and Intel GPUs – the percentage of users
who plan to run with compilers specifically intended for these GPUs was
consistently lower than the number of users who anticipated using them.
Rank upcoming Spack features by importance
We asked respondents to rank some planned and not-yet-planned Spack features by importance: “not important”, “slightly important”, “somewhat important”, “very important”, and “critical”. The two most frequently ranked “critical” (and also the top two features by average score) were reusing external installs and the new concretizer. These are related, as the new concretizer is needed to reuse existing installations.
After those, the most important features were better compiler flag
handling and better support for developers. Separate concretization of
build dependencies (i.e., using
gcc for packages like CMake even if the
user asked that the main package be built with the Intel compilers) was
next on the list, followed by language virtuals (ability to depend on
fortran and have that resolve to a compiler and runtime
library), automatic package maintainer notifications on GitHub, and build
The features rated least important were build testing, publicly available optimized binary packages, package testing, cloud integration for Spack, and Windows support, with the last three rated significantly less important than all the others.
Every feature was listed as “critical” by at least some users, but there are some clear preferences here that we’ll be trying to tailor our efforts to. We already shipped the new concretizer as an experimental feature in Spack v0.16.0, and we’ve already merged a number of fixes for it in Spack v0.16.1. Separate concretization of build dependencies and reusing existing installs are both modifications that we’ll need to make to the new concretizer, and we’ve already started looking into how we can provide them. Better developer support, language virtuals, maintainer notifications, better build testing, and package testing are already milestones for 2021.
The feature that stands out that we haven’t yet worked into our plans is better compiler flag handling. Based on this survey we’re going to see if we can work that into our schedule for 2021, as well.
In addition to the community-wide averages above, we looked at whether different segments of the community rated features differently. On the right above, we split out average feature ratings by workplace, and on the left we split them out by job type.
Overall, the rank order of features was similar across different workplaces and job types. Reusing existing installs and the new concretizer were consistently at the top of everyone’s list, and the lowest-rated features had low ratings across the board. Industry users prioritized cloud integration noticeably higher than other groups, and user support staff placed a much higher value on package testing than other job types (perhaps because they are involved in more package testing efforts at their sites). Managers and ASCR labs rated separate build dependencies lower than other groups. Other than these outliers there were not significant deviations from the overall order of preference.
There are some noticeable trends across groups. System administrators, user support staff, and industry users tended to rate features as less important across the board. It’s hard to know how to interpret this – it could mean that they’re happy with the existing capabilities of Spack, or that these particular improvements aren’t their top priorities.
If we had a (virtual) workshop on Spack, would you attend?
We’ve thought about having a Spack user meeting for a while, and we had actually started planning for an inaugural Spack User Meeting earlier this year. That fell apart when the pandemic hit. Other similar tools have had good luck with meetings like this (e.g., NixCon and the EasyBuild User Meeting), so we asked users what they thought of a potentially virtual meeting:
Just over half of users (over 85 people) said they would attend, and 17 said they’d be willing to give a presentation. That seems like more than enough for an initial Spack meeting, so expect us to announce something for 2021.
We’re interested in making it easier to learn about Spack, so we asked people how they’re doing it now.
Have you done a Spack tutorial?
We were surprised to see that over 60% of all our users have done a Spack tutorial. Since 2016, We’ve been doing Spack tutorials at conferences like Supercomputing, ISC, and PEARC, and this year we had over 125 attendees at our virtual Spack tutorial on AWS. This seems to show that tutorials have been a very effective form of outreach, even if they aren’t the main way people first hear about Spack (per our earlier question). At the very least, they likely contribute to the high rate of contribution in the community.
How do you get help with Spack when you need it?
Users go to the docs more than any other place for help with Spack. Slack, as mentioned above, is also very popular – 50% of users use it to get help. We were happy to see that around 40% of users get help from their coworkers, and when we looked further at this data, those who got help from coworkers were not confined to big laboratories – they came from all the types of workplaces that we considered.
How often do you consult the Spack documentation?
Users consult the documentation reasonably frequently – weekly to monthly for most. A small fraction (14%) check it daily. ECP users check the documentation less frequently on average than the community as a whole, but ECP users have also been using Spack for longer, and are likely more familiar with it.
If there were commercial support for Spack, would you or your organization buy it?
We don’t have any plans to provide commercial support for Spack at the moment, but it’s nice to know that 23%, or 39 users and their organizations, might be willing to pay for it. That’s a fairly large percentage of users willing to pay for support for an open source product.
Quality of Spack
We wrapped up the multiple choice part of our survey with a final question asking users to rate the quality of Spack.
How would you rate the overall quality of Spack, its community, docs, and packages?
Similar to our question on features above, users were asked to rate different parts of Spack as “horrible”, “bad”, “ok”, “good”, and “excellent”. We split the results out by workplace and job:
Responses were positive on average for all categories. Only 3.5% of users responded negatively for the quality of Spack overall (cf. 2% for EasyBuild, slide 60). Only 5% responded negatively for any aspect. Consistently, the highest-rated aspect was the community, which is great, because Spack wouldn’t be sustainable without its community. Just after the community was Spack itself.
While both the community and Spack averaged “good” or higher overall, the docs and packages had the lowest average ratings. While some users have praised the documentation, a lot of documentation has accumulated and it likely needs to be organized better. Spack targets many different kinds of users, and there is not just one workflow. We’ve gotten a lot of requests to provide clearer how-to guides for common site deployment and developer workflows, which is something we plan to work on over the next year.
Spack packages are a harder problem. The package DSL is part of what makes Spack unique – there is one template for each package, and the same template lets you build any version or configuration of a package. This makes it easier to port Spack packages to new systems, but it also makes the testing surface for Spack packages very large. We think we are still on the right path, for several reasons:
- Together with Kitware, we’ve built up a sophisticated CI system using the support for pipelines built into Spack environments.
- We’ve hooked up our GitLab instance to Spack’s main GitHub repository, and within the next couple of weeks, we’ll be testing a subset of Spack builds on every pull request.
- These are the same builds used to produce ECP’s Extreme Scale Scientific Software Stack (E4S).
One of our priorities for 2021 under ECP is hardening these builds and testing Spack packages on a wide range of platforms, and now that the new concretizer is in Spack, we expect to be able to steer Spack configurations towards well-tested ones, based on builds in our pipeline and under E4S. So, we expect package stability to get much better over the coming year, and we’re hoping that it will show up in next year’s survey responses.
We asked 6 long answer questions. If you want, you can read them all in the data repository. The number and length of responses to these was overwhelming, and we haven’t come up with a great way to summarize them, but reading them all gave us a great picture of what people in the community are up to. We’ve picked a few responses per question and quoted them below.
Tell us briefly about your use case and your usual Spack workflow.
I am using Spack to build the software environment for our users on our University’s centralized HPC system.
Using Spack to build complex applications natively. Moving the build into containers, if possible with
We use spack to provide 3 consistent entry points into our nuclear physics software environment: cvmfs, build_caches, containers.
Rather heterogeneous cluster with an environment per architecture. Currently having lots of fun packaging bioinformatics tools.
Support Spack in Fugaku
I’m a math library developer and use spack to build third party libraries e.g.,
Trilinosboth for developing on my laptop and for continuous integration on a dedicated workstation.
We use spack to install most facility-provided software on OLCF HPC machines.
Distributed build system with Spack environments
What about Spack helps you the most?
Greg Becker responding to my questions on Slack.
How Spack handles installation of multiple versions of the same app.
How Spack should be Linux OS agnostic (yet to be tested) so we can experiment with offering other distros for users.
Absolute flexibility, especially compared to, i.e.,
nix. And dependency handling, which I never want to do manually again.
I’m still in dependency hell, but Spack took me from the 7th circle (violence - for the violence I’d like to commit against my keyboard while building things) to the 3rd circle (gluttony - for the voracious appetite I now have for spack-installed packages and the indulgent number of dependencies they require).
Well-defined package specifications and solid concretization.
The concretizer (despite some issues) is the most helpful aspect of Spack. It allows for automatic dependency management and reproducibility.
What are the biggest pain points in Spack for your workflow?
surprising re-concretizations, updating environments and removing old packages
inter dependencies with many variants makes a huge/complicated package file
Better parallel building of environments. I think Slurm integration could be very good to have.
Right now, the time it takes to concretize in our deployment with ~2000 packages already in the database.
Not having language virtual dependencies makes it harder to have language polyfills for newer features when the compiler doesn’t support them. It also is hard to say what compiler versions you support
c++ language standard dependencies, build dependency blow-up
It seems that we should specify external package path every time so it would be great if Spack can detect preinstalled libraries.
What’s the biggest thing we could do to improve Spack over the next year?
Keep doing outreach efforts, videos, tutorials, hackathons, whatever to spread the voice more.
Python as a virtual dependency
The complaint I still have to field from people is “I tried to build a simple package, and Spack built Python and CMake and and and and…” so I think better deciphering of externals (which I know you’re working on as we speak) would be good.
QA: less features but really solid CI on tagged releases, including packages.
Cross compiler support, new concreteizer
Documentation organisation, examples, and explicit API listing of all internal functionality.
New concretizer, maintainer bot
Build lots of buildcaches for each site to speed up builds. It could be nice to have a cloud repository could be AWS, GCP, where spack host all the buildcaches.
Fully-working backtracking concretizer
Don’t lose momentum.
Are there key packages you’d like to see in Spack that are not included yet?
Probably new build system support like Julia / Golang
I would like to be able to contribute one day adding the Uintah software suite
WRF. I’m aware that it’s now included in develop branch.
None that we haven’t been able to rapidly write for ourselves.
Do you have any other comments for us?
This project makes me enjoy coming into work.
Yes, I like spack, can’t do without it now.
It would be great if https://github.com/spack/spack-configs included more DOE machines and were updated more frequently. If the administrators at computing centers provide these files somewhere it does not seem to be well advertised to users.
Pretty much every year my biggest victory with Spack is “they fixed the thing that was biggest gripe about Spack last year,” which is a sign of a really good job listening to users, so keep that up.
Keep up the good work. I will continue using and supporting Spack for many years to come.
Keep being awesome! Spack is my favorite tool of the last 5 years!
It’s easy to create a real tangle of versions and special builds. I think the project should work to maintain good communication with the application developers, so that standard or common/expected versions and dependency sets can be more clearly identified
Spack is extraordinary and blows away all past attempts to bring sanity to HPC software. I encourage you to offer commercial support. Please have support tiers that allow us to select an appropriate level of support.