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January 7, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Decade Ahead

Michael Feldman

It’s tempting to think that the beginning of a new decade will usher in some sort of major paradigm shift in HPC. But that’s unlikely to happen, primarily because the pace of change in HPC, and for IT in general, is already built into the fabric of the business. That’s due primarily to Moore’s Law, which has been generalized into the broader expectation that next year’s computers will be cheaper, smaller and more energy-efficient than last year’s. That enables most IT users to be conservative about migrating to new architectures or software.

In fact, the end of Moore’s Law would be the true precipitating event for a major paradigm shift in the computer biz. But don’t hold your breath. Even the most pessimistic projections give us another five years of shrinking silicon. And even if semiconductor-based transistor technology eventually runs out of steam, it’s likely that other nanotechnologies like carbon nanotubes and spintronics will carry on.

That said, innovation is still being driven by specific discontinuities: the memory wall, the stalling of processor clock speed, power consumption, mechanical limitations on hard drive performance, and system complexity, among others. In response we’re seeing the rise of multi/manycore CPUs, GPGPU computing, flash memory storage and cloud computing. All of these technologies stand to play a big role in HPC.

Of the technologies mentioned, I think the one most likely to make the biggest impact in HPC over the next couple of years is GPU computing. Thanks mainly to the efforts of NVIDIA and its CUDA architecture development, general purpose GPU computing is the fastest moving HPC technology today and has the steepest adoption trajectory. (Using the same criteria, if I broadened the scope to the entire IT industry, I’d tap cloud computing as the leading technology driver.) When the first “Fermi” Tesla GPU products hit the streets in mid-2010, it will be the first time a vector (or vector-like) processor based on a commodity architecture will be available to the supercomputing community. By all accounts, that qualifies as a game changer.

Other HPC innovation in this decade will be driven by new parallel programming development environments from the likes of Intel, Microsoft, NVIDIA, and others. The result, unfortunately, is that we’ll end up with a confusing array of languages and libraries, which in many cases will be tied to specific vendors: Ct (Intel), CUDA (NVIDIA), Microsoft (Parallel LINQ), The MathWorks (Parallel MATLAB), and so on. If history is any guide, this is not likely to get sorted out anytime soon.

As far as the outlook for the HPC business itself, the smart money is predicting a modest growth rate in vendor revenue, perhaps less so for server firms, more so for storage and InfiniBand sellers. Overall, the IT sector looks pretty strong right now revenue-wise, with decent job growth in the long-term forecast. The fact that at least half the US stimulus money is still to be spent should bolster HPC work in government and academia, at least through the end of 2010.

On the other hand, there are still too many server vendors with too little differentiation out there, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some more consolidation this year, even as the market rebounds. And if credit and venture capital funding remains tight, we will also continue to see software firms being gobbled up, as we saw with RapidMind, Cilk Arts, Interactive Supercomputing, Visual Numerics, and most recently, TotalView Technologies.

By the way, despite some of the positive economic news over the last few months, there are plenty of analysts out there forecasting a rather sluggish recovery in 2010 and beyond. Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein writes that the uptick in the recent economic numbers may be temporary:

The surprising strength of the bounce-back testifies to the wisdom of the underlying strengths of the U.S. economy and the success of the policies, but is likely to peter out as the stimulus begins to wear off and the inventory correction is completed. Economist Paul Krugman probably has it about right when he says there is a one-in-three chance that the economy will dip back into recession, with the “optimistic” scenario that the economy will neither shrink nor grow but bounce along the bottom.

Welcome to the new normal.

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