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May 28, 2010

HPC Innovator’s Work Spans Two Continents

Nicole Hemsoth

Over the past two decades, Dr. Ashwini Nanda has been at the center of some of the most cutting-edge HPC projects and initiatives in the world.  At IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, in New York, Dr. Nanda led the development of the Cell processor-based  systems (QS20, QS21, and QS22 blades) and software technologies for high performance computing. That work culminated in the construction of the Roadrunner supercomputer for Los Alamos National Laboratory. Later, as the head of Computational Research Laboratories (CRL) in Pune, India, he directed the development of the “Eka” HPC cluster that, in 2007, held the title of Asia’s fastest supercomputer. He also established the shared memory systems group at IBM Research, worked on the Amazon superscalar architecture at Texas Instruments, and developed parallel computers for India’s missile defense systems at Wipro, Bangalore.

Recently he moved back to India, where he founded HPC Links, a company that offers parallel programming software tools and services for the global high performance computing community. We got the opportunity to ask Dr. Nanda about how he sees the HPC industry today, how it’s changing, and what led him to start up his company.

HPCwire: Maybe we can start with some of your thoughts about the development of high performance computing in India. What are the principal challenges in building the country’s HPC capability? And how do you see the way forward for HPC and supercomputing in India — for both vendors and users?
Ashwini Nanda: India has less than 1 percent of the compute power in the global TOP500 supercomputing list today. This tiny share of the pie is not indicative of the financial and high-tech might of India. The gap indicates there is significant room for growth in HPC infrastructure in the country. The gap one sees today is perhaps due to the lack of broad awareness of the benefits of HPC to scientific/technical research and to business enterprises. This is despite the commendable progress made by organizations such as CDAC, CRL, SERC/IISc and HiPC in spreading HPC awareness in the country.

India’s per capita spending in high performance computing is negligible compared to the US, Japan and Germany, and for that matter compared even to China, Spain and Russia. The Unique ID (Adhaar) project of the government will likely fuel growth in HPC related to data mining, consummer security and national security. The government has procured quite a few HPC clusters for weather and climate prediction which would foster research and application development in these areas. India has very successful government enterprises in nuclear energy, space and defence, which would benefit tremendously from the use of HPC. The US counterparts in these sectors are the prime movers of the HPC industry there. The Indian government has the financial strength and must spend heavily in HPC in order to make these sectors globally competitive.
India has vibrant pharmaceutical, financial, entertainment and manufacturing industries, all of whom would gain significant productivity and competitiveness by using HPC. We built the Eka machine at CRL soley with private investment from Tata. The other industrial powerhouses in India have the financial means, and they will likely follow suit once they see the benefits of HPC to their business. Talking to leaders from government, academia and industry across the country, one can sense a growing awareness of the potential of HPC, which I believe will translate into a faster pace of growth in HPC infrastructure and services during the next five years or so in India. When that happens, it will benefit the multinational vendors as well as the local vendors.

HPCwire: What do you think will be the role of cloud computing for HPC users in India?

Nanda: Culturally, and economically, reuse and sharing of resources are well accepted in the Indian society. Once the users discover the utility of HPC, I think sharing resources through cloud platforms will come naturally to them, especially the small and medium scale users of HPC. But more importantly, India could also become a key global host of cloud computing infrastructure and services due to attractive low-cost operations and highly skilled technical manpower.

HPCwire: You had a rather prominent role in the development of Cell processor-based systems and software at IBM. The Cell helped usher in the petaflop era, but overall it looks like the impact of this technology in supercomputing is going to be relatively limited. What do you think the Cell brought to the HPC space and what lessons were learned?

Nanda: The Cell based systems from IBM made two important contributions to HPC technology, besides helping cross the petaflop barrier. First they set the new trend of using hybrid multicore clusters — with CPU-GPU combinations — to build the most cost-effective, power-efficient and best-performing supercomputers. Secondly, creating a software ecosystem to harness the compute power of a revolutionary processor like Cell seemed prohibitive in the beginning. But the Cell systems effort at IBM Research showed that an effective collaboration of government, academia and industry can indeed build a respectable software ecosystem for a new architecture.

It’s true that the momentum around Cell has has been lost, but credit should go to IBM for laying the foundations of a new era that would see the proliferation of hybrid multicore CPU-GPU combination clusters in solving key HPC problems. We are already seeing glimpses of this through the momentum building around such offerings from AMD, Intel and NVIDIA.

HPCwire: In HPC, which hardware and software technologies do you see becoming increasing important over the next, say, five years?

Nanda: I believe in terms of hardware, hybrid multicore GPU-CPU combination technologies and commodity InfiniBand and Ethernet technologies will continue to lead the way and take us through the exaflop mark. In terms of software we will see more emphasis being put on tools that make it easier to write parallel applications and increase productivity.

HPCwire: Switching to your current role as the founder and CEO of HPC Links: What is the company about and what was your motivation to launch this as a business?

Nanda: While doing the systems work at IBM and at Tata over the last few years, the obvious realization came to me that now the commoditization of HPC platforms is complete. We have been building affordable parallel machines all around the world, and almost any one who needs access to a parallel machine can access one today. But are these machines utilized well enough? Not really. Are most people, or industries, who could benefit from HPC, taking advantage of these platforms today? The answer is clearly no. So what is the problem? The US government Council on Competitiveness identified two years back that there are three primary barriers to mass adoption of HPC. Namely, lack of parallel programming skills, lack of parallel applications, and high cost of adoption.

HPC Links was formed last year to help address these customer pain points. Our goal is to help businesses stay competitive by alleviating these pain points and achieving high efficiency, faster time to market and enhanced product quality through innovative use of HPC, cloud and multicore solutions. We are addressing all the three key barriers in HPC adoption through our parallel application services offerings, system integration offerings and the software tools and packages under development.

HPCwire: What is unique about the company?
Nanda: Our uniqueness today, if I can point to the most significant one, is our interdisciplinary skill pool. We have Ph.D.’s and Masters in multitude of scientific and engineering disciplines, all adept at various flavors of parallel programming, on all kinds of hardware and software platforms. Mix that with the breadth of domain knowledge the HPC Links team has across industry verticals, and you get a really unique, comprehensive parallel programming skill pool in the world.

HPCwire: What do you see as the principal challenges in developing parallel applications for science and technical computing codes today?

Nanda: The hard challenges in parallel application development as I see are lack of skills, and productive tools. Tackling the challenge of productive tools for parallel programming, I believe, will take longer than tackling the issue of lack of skills. There is the general lack of parallel programmers in the world today, which the universities have started to address pretty effectively. And then there is the problem that people who are good in parallel programming are not necessarily trained in various application domains, and people who are domain experts are often times not proficient in parallel programming. The key is to bring domain experts and parallel programmers together and cross train them on the job.

HPCwire: Who do think will be your main customers for these services?

Nanda: In the near term we see majority of our customers outside of India where the HPC market has higher momentum and awareness — especially in the US and Europe. The Indian HPC market is in its nascent stage, but has great potential in the longer term. Our services are targeted toward any one who can benefit from an experienced parallel programming skill pool in research and development, scaling, testing and optimization of parallel applications in a wide range of domains. For example, recently we signed up with Microsoft to provide this kind of parallel application programming services for their HPC Server platform. This makes our services available to the Windows HPC Server users and ISVs in all industry segments. We have deep Linux cluster programming expertise, and are working with universities and national labs, as well as industry HPC users.