Our People - Irfan Elahi

Supercomputers and alpacas

Irfan Elahi is the project manager overseeing the installation of our newest supercomputers – first Yellowstone and now Cheyenne.

The section head in NCAR's Computational and Information Systems Laboratory (CISL) didn't set out to become an expert on building, deploying, and maintaining large, high-performance computing systems. In another life, he might have become an astrophysicist. But as he told us, that option didn't exist for a child growing up in Pakistan in the 1970s.

Elahi grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, the cultural hub of the Punjab region. (Pakistan actually is an acronym, with the "P" standing for Punjab.) In an extremely competitive environment for places at only a few universities, Elahi's scores qualified him to study at the University of Engineering & Technology, Taxila, near Islamabad.

While completing his engineering degree, he won an internship with IBM in Pakistan and then a permanent job with the corporation. After a stint with the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. (Aramco) in Saudi Arabia, he came to the U.S. in 1998. In 2003, he was hired by NCAR, where he has won six internal awards from CISL in 11 years for such work as bringing new supercomputer clusters into production and decommissioning others.

Irfan Elahi outside the Mesa Lab
Irfan Elahi outside NCAR's Mesa Lab in Boulder. (©UCAR. Photo by A.J. Lauer. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.) 

Elahi and his wife, Sarah, a data warehouse architect originally from Wisconsin, live on a two-acre farm in Niwot with their two teenage sons, a dog, two cats, and three alpacas.

As a young man, Elahi traveled widely in the Karakoram Range of northern Pakistan and in the Himalayas of India and Nepal. He especially likes visiting small towns, "where the culture is."

Today, he sees similarities between Colorado and the striking mountains of his homeland.

What drew you to your field?
Growing up, there weren't many options. My father was a businessman – he had a store that supplied construction materials. I didn't want to be selling tiles. I grew up watching Cosmos (the Carl Sagan TV series) and that got me interested in science.

Would you have chosen astrophysics?
If it was available, maybe. But I am thankful for where I landed.

What inspires you?
Science. Science was the tool I used to make sense of the world around me. Science has a logic that helps you understand things that are chaotic. 

What do you hope to achieve with your work?
Help create an environment so scientists can do more science as efficiently as possible.

What is the coolest thing about your work?
Being able to evaluate future trends in computing and using that knowledge to deploy that (into new systems). We have a High-Performance Computing Futures Lab where we deploy emerging technology and architecture so the staff can get their hands on it. Last year, we had hardware and processing architecture in the Futures Lab that is now being deployed in Cheyenne. The work we're doing now in the lab might be deployed in a year or two.

What do you like to do when you're not working?
Gardening. I took barren land in Niwot six years ago and planted more than 100 trees.

What kinds of trees?
Locust, evergreen, spruce, aspens. I lose about 5-10 saplings a year. There's a lot of wind there.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My family and friends and the memories I have made over the years. Also seeing my kids' interest in science.

How did you cultivate that?
By allowing open-ended opportunities for them to explore and find their own passion, and access to reading materials.

What is your favorite science fiction movie?
Star Wars

 Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer