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May 14, 2012

Zettaflops Will Happen Says HPC Analyst

John Barr

While Thomas Sterling’s interview about the impossibility of reaching zettaflops made a lot of sense, the history of making negative predictions about technology is often an embarrassing one. Here are three examples:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

“Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput.” 
Sir Alan Sugar, British entrepreneur, 2005

If we wind back the clock to the days of megaflops, there were no commodity microprocessors (i.e,. the killer micros that put paid to many proprietary architectures), there were no multicore processor. Indeed the Cray-1 was a single processor machine. There was no OpenMP, no MPI and compute accelerators were the size of a fridge and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Who would have thought that today’s HPC systems would use compute accelerators the size of a paperback book that were millions of times more powerful and cost a small fraction of the price? And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that the next generation of microprocessors will be the last major advance as the photolithography techniques used to manufacture chips had reached a limit, beyond which decreasing the size of devices was impossible. The industry has achieved the impossible before, and will do so again.

Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors placed on an integrated circuit would double every two years, is often understood to mean that performance will double every two years (some say 18 months). What started life as an observation, has become the target that marketing men guarantee and engineering budgets are set against. And the straight line graphs that technologists use to predict the future suggest that zettaflops systems will be built around the year 2030.

Professor Sterling pioneered the use of compute clusters and is a Gordon Bell Prize winner. He has excellent credentials in HPC, and I can’t refute a single fact that he put forward in his interview — indeed, I am generally in full agreement with insights on the issues the industry faces – but I am certain that he is wrong in his conclusion.

Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, identified what he called the “three laws of prediction,” reflecting an optimistic view of ingenuity:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong;
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture past them into the impossible; and
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I have no idea what a zettaflops system will look like, but it will be magic.

About the author

John Barr covers IT early adoption and innovation in High Performance Computing at 451 Research. He is also responsible for the company’s research activities within the European Commission Framework Program. John has over 30 years of experience in the IT industry, initially writing compilers and development tools for High Performance Computing platforms. The bulk of his career has been spent in a variety of technical roles at HPC systems vendors, delivering training, running benchmarks and providing pre and post sales customer support. John’s core technical skill is application performance analysis, optimization and parallelization.