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March 23, 2007

HPC, Thy Name is Productivity

Michael Feldman

The real measure of how widespread computing has become is how invisible it is. For every movie, automobile, stock trade, cancer drug, weather forecast, or airline reservation, there is an array of computing resources working behind the scenes. As we happily consume the end results of information technology, most people don't think about the the hardware and software that make it all possible.

And as quickly as computing has underpinned the economy, what we have come to know as high performance computing is also moving into the mainstream. Every example I cited above has used (or will soon use) high performance computing in some form. As this occurs, HPC is starting to resemble the mainstream computing community much more. HPC OEMs can build commodity-based machines and sell their wares into a variety of vertical markets — financial, entertainment, oil & gas, biotechnology, manufacturing, and others. The same holds true for HPC storage and network component vendors. At the same time, HPC software finds itself on many platforms, from high-end PCs to “true” supercomputers.

Sounds like good news — and it is. But it's also a confusing time for vendors. As HPC products evolve out of their niches, there's not a whole lot of market intelligence out there to guide them to their customers. That's the opportunity seen by the newly formed Tabor Research, a company under Tabor Communications Inc. (TCI). In a nutshell, Tabor Research is taking a systems approach to HPC market research. In doing so, they are using the term high productivity computing instead of high performance computing to describe the new market realities.

I got the opportunity to pursue this topic with the TCI group leading Tabor Research: Debra Goldfarb, Tabor Communications CEO and president; Addison Snell, Tabor Research Vice President and General Manager; and Dr. Christopher Willard, Tabor Research Sr. Research Analyst. Recorded in a podcast, the group describes high productivity computing and how it relates to what we've come to know as HPC. They also discuss how this perspective will be applied to develop market intelligence at the new company. (Disclosure: Tabor Communications is the parent corporation of HPCwire and signs my paycheck.)

CEO Debra Goldfarb says that due to the democratization of high performance computing, the market is rapidly maturing. Instead of being focused on flops or even flops/dollar, users — practical creatures that they are — are demanding return on investment (ROI). So rather than fixating only on the server hardware, whole systems must be looked at. This includes the interconnects, the storage hardware, the file system, the workload manager, the operating system, accelerators, compilers and other development tools, and the application software. A productive system is dependent upon the balanced integration of all these components. According to Goldfarb, this notion of productivity is aligned with ROI.

Even if she weren't my boss, I'd have to agree with her. The pursuit of flops for their own sake is almost a thing of the past. I say almost because we still swoon over the Top500 list and the “fastest computer on the planet” proclamations. Shame on us. End users looking to get their HPC work done could care less. They're interested in getting the largest number of compute cycles executed with the least amount of resources. Period.

Analyst Chris Willard notes that computational methods and high demand data flow problems have become so widespread in industry, that they have become integral to the success of those organizations. In the manufacturing sector, computer-aided engineering (CAE) has become such a cost-effective tool, it would be hard for many businesses to compete effectively without it. For example, using computer simulations in the development of the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing was able to reduce the number of wings to be tested by a factor of seven, compared to the wing development for the 767. Organizations like Boeing now rely so much on computer simulation and analysis, that they can't be replaced.

It's not all about scientific computing, either. Tabor Research also considers superscaled business computing to be under the high productivity computing umbrella. Addison Snell says even if you're running non-technical enterprise applications, once you scale them up to the size of a Google or an Amazon, those applications run into the same sort of extreme parallelism and high throughput demands as other high performance environments.

In the editorial he penned this week for HPCwire, Snell tells us that his research group isn't looking to redefine the HPC market, just to recognize what already exists. “Tabor Communications is not pushing the industry in a new direction,” says Snell. “We are updating the definitions to head in the same direction the industry is already going.”
Whether HPC ends up denoting productivity or performance is almost irrelevant. The fact is, the vendors and the users have already settled on the importance of system productivity as a driver for ROI. That will outlive any of the acronyms we think up.

To listen to our interview, The Emergence of High Productivity Computing, visit our podcast page at


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