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July 28, 2006

Who’s Driving High Performance Computing?

Michael Feldman

Gone are the days when the U.S. government alone can determine the direction of supercomputing. The commercial growth of HPC over the last two decades has fundamentally changed that dynamic. Adoption of high performance computing in bio-sciences, the financial sector, geo-sciences, engineering and other areas has changed the supercomputing user base in a relatively short period of time.

For many HPC vendors this is a good thing. IDC reports that revenues for the high performance computing market grew by 24 percent in 2005, reaching $9.2 billion. A majority of this revenue is commercial HPC, although the government still represents a significant share. Classified HPC defense spending alone is over a billion dollars.

But maybe more significantly, the vast majority of really high-end supercomputing and cutting-edge research is done with the support of government money. Most multi-million dollar HPC capability systems reside in government-funded supercomputing centers, federal research labs and various undisclosed locations at national security facilities. In the brave new world of commercial HPC, million-dollar-plus capability platforms are the exception. According to IDC, the revenue for these kinds of systems has actually been declining for several years, as less expensive machines have taken their place. Most of the rapid growth in HPC is the result of commodity-based cluster computing, which represented about half of the $9.2 billion in revenue in 2005.

But the U.S. government has some unique problems to solve. Extremely powerful supercomputers are required to support national security applications like nuclear weapons design and testing, cryptography, and aeronautics. Other commercial and scientific applications in areas such as applied physics, biotechnology/genomics, climatological modeling, and engineering can usually (but not always) make due with less-capable systems. Bleeding-edge commercial applications — for example, nanoscale simulation of drug interactions – are emerging, but most of these are being facilitated by government support.

A March 2006 report by the Joint U.S Defense Science Board and the UK Defence Scientific Advisory Council Task Force on Defense Critical Technologies concluded the following:

“Multiple studies, such as the recently completed [November 2004] National Research Council study, conclude that '…the supercomputing needs of the government will not be satisfied by systems developed to meet the demands of the broader commercial market.' The government must bear primary responsibility for ensuring that it has the access to the custom systems that it requires. While leveraging developments in the commercial computing marketplace will satisfy many needs, the government must routinely plan for developing what the commercial marketplace will not, and it must budget the necessary funds.”

Last week at a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness, several industry and government representatives offered testimony to address some of these issues.

One of the industry representatives to testify was Christopher Jehn, vice president of Government Programs of Cray Inc. He sounded that alarm that advances in HPC technology have slowed and that the promise of commodity-based supercomputers has not materialized. He attributes this to the fact that general-purpose processors and other commodity-based technologies used to build supercomputers were designed for other purposes — essentially, personal computing and enterprise computing. The result is that scientists must expend a lot of effort to get HPC software to run efficiently on these homogeneous commodity-based machines.

“Over the last decade, the computer industry has standardized on commodity processors,” observed Jehn. “With high volume low-cost processors, supercomputer clusters consisting of commodity parts held out a promise to users of ever-more powerful supercomputers at much lower cost. At the same time, the federal government dramatically reduced investments in supercomputing innovation, leaving the future of supercomputing in the hands of industry. But from industry's perspective, the supercomputing market is not large enough to justify significant investment in unique processor designs and custom interconnects — as the supercomputer market is less than two percent of the overall server marketplace, according to International Data Corporation. To advance supercomputing, industry has relied on leveraging innovation from the personal computer and server markets.”

This reflects Cray's “Adaptive Computing” pitch — to advance HPC in a meaningful way, we have to move from homogeneous systems to heterogeneous ones. Just scaling up the current architectures won't get us there. The implication is that the government needs to make a significant investment in technology beyond commodity-based computing.

Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of Technical Strategy and Innovation, IBM, offered a different perspective. He warned that the government cannot afford to ignore market realities when funding HPC projects. During his career he witnessed the failure of supercomputing companies that relied solely on government-based projects and were heedless of marketplace requirements. He related IBM's success with its Blue Gene architecture as an example of leveraging commodity technology — in this case, PowerPC processors — to build cutting-edge systems.

“Supercomputing was once confined to a niche market, because the hardware was so very expensive,” stated  Wladawsky-Berger. “That changed over time with the introduction of workstation and PC-based technologies, the latter becoming immensely popular in Linux clusters during the late 1990s. Today, we even use low-power, low-cost micros — consumer-based technologies — to attain very high degrees of parallelism and performance, as in our Blue Gene system, which has reached a peak of 360 trillion calculations per second. Now, we are seeking to build supercomputers using technologies from the gaming world, such as the Cell processor. All these approaches leverage components from high-volume markets, and aggregate them using specialized architectures; thus the costs are significantly lower than in earlier days and the potential markets are consequently much bigger.”

From IBM's point of view, Blue Gene is an affirmation that commodity-based supercomputing is a practical model for the future and the government should pay attention to market viability as it looks to invest in new programs.

Dr. Joseph Lombardo, Director National Supercomputing Center for Energy and the Environment at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, described some of the history of the U.S. government's past investments in high performance computing. He suggests that our federal HPC interests, academia and the larger HPC community are all intertwined and the government needs to act accordingly. He noted that after a brief period of interest in “Grand Challenge” applications in the late 1980's and early 1990's, the government switched its focus to distributed computing and COTS technology. He said while these initiatives led to a broader range of individuals working in scientific computing, it also resulted in starving the high-end of HPC R&D. But after the rise of Japanese supercomputing in the 1990's, the U.S. government once again refocused its efforts in high-end supercomputing

“At the end of the 1990's DARPA and other organizations began to see that foreign countries, such as Asian groups, were overtaking the U.S. position in high performance computing once again, and recommended policies that would fund and support the high end of the field once again,” said Lombardo. “The DARPA High Productivity Computing Systems program is a good example of this shift back toward an emphasis on high-end capability. The DARPA program is focused on providing a new generation of economically viable high productivity computing systems for the national security and industrial user community in the 2010 timeframe. This trend has continued with the High Performance Computing Revitalization Act, the President's 2006 state of the Union Address, and with the FY 07 budget which increased DOE's high performance computing programs by almost $100 million.”

Lombardo's comments suggest that we can balance the government's and industy's need for advanced supercomputing with market realities. He points to the DARPA HPCS program as an example of this approach.

But HPCS may also expose a potential conflict in the government's role. The program's stated goal of “providing a new generation of economically viable high productivity computing systems for national security and for the industrial user community” suggests that HPCS intends to address both the government's and industry's supercomputing needs, and do so within a commercially viable framework. The implication is that all these objectives are compatible.

But national security represents a rather specific set of very high-end supercomputing applications, while the industrial user community represents a very diverse range of HPC users. Can a single supercomputing model (or two) satisfy everyone? Even if we limit the industrial users to potential petascale customers like Boeing, I might still ask the same question.

And what is really meant by “commercially viable?” For supercomputing systems that push the envelope, commercial viability has always been problematic. Vendors usually don't expect such systems to make money straight out of the lab. I understand the desire to produce a general-purpose petascale solution, but I guess it makes me uncomfortable to think the government is going to try to predict the economic viability of a future architecture. After all, DARPA isn't a market research firm.

As commercial HPC continues to expand, the government will be increasingly challenged to control the direction of future supercomputing architectures. Market realities are pushing the hardware and software in a different direction than the needs of some critical high-end HPC users and will probably continue to do so. Such is the nature of capitalism, which, like processor scalability, has its limits. Market forces don't automatically produce optimal results. The government role in HPC, as in other areas, should be to support our national interests.


To find out more about what took place at the Senate's Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness hearing on HPC, take a look at our feature article that describes these proceedings. To learn more about the evolving relationship between HPC, the government and business competitiveness, read this week's interview with Suzy Tichenor, Council on Competitiveness vice president, and Bob Graybill, senior Council advisor.

As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at