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November 18, 2008

Supercomputing Puts On a Happy Face

Michael Feldman

Amid the gloomiest economy in decades, the year’s Supercomputing conference — SC08 — got underway in Austin, Texas. Despite the worldwide financial turmoil, the 2008 conference may turn out to be the largest SC event of them all, with over 330 exhibitors and more than 10,000 registered attendees. From the festive atmosphere at the opening gala on Monday evening, you might think it’s the boom years of the 1990s all over again.

The mood of the vendors I’ve spoken with so far does seem pretty upbeat about their business prospects over the next year or so. One 2-year-old startup told me their Q4 revenue was the highest it has ever been. And Intel’s Stephen Wheat, senior director of the company’s HPC business unit, said he thinks the HPC segment is probably as recession-proof as any in the industry.

That’s pretty much the conventional wisdom today. Since HPC adoption is still largely driven by R&D requirements in government and industry, it tends to be less susceptible to at least short-term downturns in the economy. The caveat is that this particular downturn might be prolonged. The historical record for the HPC industry really doesn’t provide much guidance for the current scenario.

Although the Cray-1 was introduced in 1976 (and there were CDC and IBM “supercomputers” even before that), HPC as a going concern really didn’t begin until the 1980s. In fact, the first Supercomputing conference in 1988 corresponds pretty well to the time that HPC became an established industry segment. And since that year, there have been only two recessions in the US: July 1990 to March 1991 (8 months) and November 2001 to November 2002 (12 months).

The current downturn could last significantly longer, and if that happens, both government and industry could switch into survival mode and cut R&D spending. The other danger is that larger IT players with their foot in HPC might go under or scale back significantly because of their exposure to cutbacks in the broader IT market. Just last week, Sun Microsystems announced plans to lay off up to 6,000 workers (15 to 18 percent of its workforce) amid a restructuring of its business. Let’s hope for better days ahead for everyone.

Speaking of supercomputing history, the SC conference has set up a 20th anniversary exhibit next to the Media Room at the far end of the Convention Center Lobby. The exhibit displays artifacts from each SC event — computer hardware, conference literature, SC commemorative mugs, logos, etc. The exhibit also lists the notable HPC systems, processors, architectures and programming languages for each of the 20 years. Try to check it out before you leave the show. For those of you watching at home, we’ve provided a picture of the exhibit below, courtesy of our intrepid reporter and insideHPC managing editor, John West.