SANDIA COMPUTER TEAM ACHIEVES SUPER RESULTS

August 25, 2000

FEATURES & COMMENTARY

Albuquerque, N.M. — John Fleck reported for the Albuquerque Journal that the greetings rolled down Rolf Riesen’s computer monitor like the cry of a baby’s birth. “Hello from compute node 0/102,” the first line of text read, a huge new computer’s announcement to the world that it was alive. “It’s born, right? The baby is born,” Riesen said, pointing to the computer screen in his Sandia National Laboratories office. One after another, nodes 0/102 through 7/102 bleated out their hello, pieces of a massive new supercomputer coming to life. It’s a computer like none ever built before.

Each “node” would be a muscular desktop computer on its own. Wired together, 600 of them could be more powerful than any other computer like it in the world. It’s called “Cplant,” which is short for “computational plant,” a sort of factory for computing. In a world where overheated computer hype has become the norm, Riesen and his colleagues knew from the beginning that this machine truly could be exceptional – if they could make it work.

Supercomputers have become a central tool for scientists today in studies ranging from climate change to genetics to, in Sandia’s case, nuclear weapons design. Keeping those scientists supplied with the computer power they crave has become a major challenge. It’s a challenge the group of Sandia computer scientists has risen to repeatedly in the last decade. “It’s fun,” Riesen said. “This is one of the reasons we work here. There’s not many places where they toss 600 nodes at you and say, ‘Here, make it work.’ ”

“Make it work” could be the slogan of the Scalable Computing Systems group.

“We build the biggest machines and we’ve always built the biggest machines,”

said University of New Mexico computer science professor Barney Maccabe, a consultant to the lab and long-time member of the team. Since 1993, Sandia has repeatedly come to the team with the same problem: Take a pile of blazing fast computer hardware and write the software plumbing to turn it into a well-oiled machine. Three times in the last decade the group has succeeded doing what few others can claim, turning those piles of hardware into the fastest computer in the world.

Ask Tramm Hudson what attracts him to computer programming: “We’re building things out of pure thought.” When it comes to making a supercomputer, the things you can see – the cabinets and cables and flashing lights – are less important than the complex architecture of software that goes inside it. Which is where Hudson, the young Wunderkind of the Scalable Computing Systems group, comes in. Hudson is a 1998 Tulane University graduate, but he began working on Sandia supercomputers when he was in high school. Until he recently left for a job in private industry, Hudson was one of the key programmers responsible for making the new Cplant computer go. Slouching in a computer-filled lair on the southern edge of Sandia, Hudson pecked away at a computer keyboard recently, “writing code” while his colleagues tried to explain the joy of programming.

Ron Brightwell, another of the young programmers on the project, had been writing reports instead of code lately, and he clearly didn’t like it. “You go through withdrawal after a while,” the 31-year-old Brightwell said. “That’s what we like doing.” Programming involves writing a series of instructions for a computer to perform, in an arcane language peppered with “if’s” and “or’s”

that demands a rare kind of precision. When you do it right, Riesen said, there is joy in seeing the computer do what you told it to. “You get a result back,” Riesen said. “It actually spits something back.” Hudson looked up from his computer to join the conversation, to explain the challenge. “With code, it really requires a level of perfection that is unmatched in any other endeavor,” he said.

Barney Maccabe remembers the day the Sandia team got started. It was January 1991, the day the bombs started dropping on Baghdad and the Persian Gulf conflict with Iraq turned from a holding action into a war. Maccabe and a bunch of other scientists gathered at Sandia to discuss a new project – making a massively parallel supercomputer work.

In the early days of supercomputers more than 20 years ago, companies like the famed Cray built big boxes. Driven primarily by the needs of nuclear weapon designers, the supercomputers did their magic by using a small number of ever-faster computer chips. But there was little commercial market for that kind of machine, making the few that were built incredibly expensive.

By the early 1990s, the cost of desktop computers was dropping fast, and supercomputer makers were looking for ways to accomplish their goal by wiring together a bunch of cheap chips and getting them to work together.

“Ultimately,” Maccabe said, “you do the best you can with whatever’s cheap.”

The job Maccabe and his colleagues faced: How do you get all those chips talking together quickly and efficiently, so computer chips aren’t sitting idle, waiting for a message they need to continue? “‘How good is your network?’ is the issue,” Maccabe explained.

In the years since, the Sandia team has solved the problem again and again, with a series of computers that were, for their time, at the pinnacle of the art. First it was nCUBE 2, then the Paragon, then a machine affectionately dubbed “the t-flops,” and now the new machine taking place behind Sandia’s security fences called Cplant.

Ask Barney Maccabe about the obscure workings of message passing in a supercomputer and his eyes light up. “I should warn you, you’re close to becoming a fly approaching the spider’s web,” he said. “This is one of the things I could spend days or weeks talking about.” Maccabe’s second-floor UNM office is remarkably barren of computers for a computer scientist’s den – just a laptop on a desk. The real action is on an erasable white board on the wall.

To illustrate a point, the 45-year-old hockey-playing professor jumps up to draw squares with lines connecting them. The squares represent pieces of a computer, and the lines are networks connecting them. Getting a message from one part of the computer to another is the key to making the machine fast enough. That’s the heart of the problem Maccabe and the other members of the Cplant team have been grappling with for the last three years.

For an idea of the practical problems of turning ideas into humming silicon, look at a little piece of hardware Rolf Riesen keeps in one of his desk drawers. It’s a computer circuit board no larger than a videocassette. Each of the supercomputer’s nodes has one of these “network cards,” which act as the node’s voice box and ears as it talks with the rest of the supercomputer. “The machine has 600 of these,” Riesen said, holding the little card in his hand.

It’s the sort of thing that has to work perfectly in the background for Sandia’s researchers using the computer to get their work done, but they don’t want to think about it. “This is the plumbing under the sink,” Riesen said.

“Most of the users don’t know this card even exists. They could care less.”

April was ugly for the team of Sandia National Labs programmers trying to make the giant Cplant supercomputer work. In a machine this big and complex, a tiny bug can be the hardest to catch. “This one was real nice,” said Ron Brightwell, sarcasm in his voice. Every so often, a researcher running one of the massive calculations that are Cplant’s bread and butter would lose one tiny bit of data. If they were lucky, their program would crash. If they were unlucky, they’d get a tiny mistake in their calculation, throwing off the results without anyone realizing it. It was maddeningly difficult to solve because it didn’t happen all the time. “It was an intermittent thing,”

Brightwell said.

In retrospect, he said, it’s clear the problem had been lurking since a very early version of their software, running on an older computer in late 1997 or early ’98. In that mass of data zipping among the machine’s many nodes, a single bit of data would occasionally arrive incorrectly, Hudson said. But it happened so rarely that it was a nightmare to diagnose. Layer by layer the team peeled down through the code, adding tests to debug the program in search of the answer.

And then one day, Hudson saw it – a piece of software touching data that it wasn’t supposed to, corrupting it in the process. A race between good data and bad data was going on, and on very rare occasions, the bad data would win.

“Many things are happening at once and the bug depends on certain, precise timing of them to occur,” Hudson explained. It was the sort of thing that was hard to see at the time, but seems obvious now. “Once I realized what the code was doing, I had a bit of an epiphany,” Hudson recalled. “It was blindingly obvious to Tramm,” Brightwell said.

Once Hudson found the blindingly obvious, it was clear that the Scalable Computing Systems group really had finally made Cplant work. The computer was placed in service this summer, made available for Sandia scientists to do their computations. But the supercomputers are a “What have you done for me lately” world. For a decade, the work of the Scalable Computing Systems group has been like Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology condemned to forever roll a heavy stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again. Building a fast computer – Cplant is the fastest machine of its kind in the world – is never enough. Next year, a faster one is needed.

============================================================

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Mira Supercomputer Enables Cancer Research Breakthrough

November 11, 2019

Dynamic partial-wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy allows researchers to observe intracellular structures as small as 20 nanometers – smaller than those visible by optical microscopes – in three dimensions at a mill Read more…

By Staff report

IBM Adds Support for Ion Trap Quantum Technology to Qiskit

November 11, 2019

After years of percolating in the shadow of quantum computing research based on superconducting semiconductors – think IBM, Rigetti, Google, and D-Wave (quantum annealing) – ion trap technology is edging into the QC Read more…

By John Russell

Tackling HPC’s Memory and I/O Bottlenecks with On-Node, Non-Volatile RAM

November 8, 2019

On-node, non-volatile memory (NVRAM) is a game-changing technology that can remove many I/O and memory bottlenecks and provide a key enabler for exascale. That’s the conclusion drawn by the scientists and researcher Read more…

By Jan Rowell

What’s New in HPC Research: Cosmic Magnetism, Cryptanalysis, Car Navigation & More

November 8, 2019

In this bimonthly feature, HPCwire highlights newly published research in the high-performance computing community and related domains. From parallel programming to exascale to quantum computing, the details are here. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Machine Learning Fuels a Booming HPC Market

November 7, 2019

Enterprise infrastructure investments for training machine learning models have grown more than 50 percent annually over the past two years, and are expected to shortly surpass $10 billion, according to a new market fore Read more…

By George Leopold

AWS Solution Channel

Making High Performance Computing Affordable and Accessible for Small and Medium Businesses with HPC on AWS

High performance computing (HPC) brings a powerful set of tools to a broad range of industries, helping to drive innovation and boost revenue in finance, genomics, oil and gas extraction, and other fields. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Atom by Atom, Supercomputers Shed Light on Alloys

November 7, 2019

Alloys are at the heart of human civilization, but developing alloys in the Information Age is much different than it was in the Bronze Age. Trial-by-error smelting has given way to the use of high-performance computing Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

IBM Adds Support for Ion Trap Quantum Technology to Qiskit

November 11, 2019

After years of percolating in the shadow of quantum computing research based on superconducting semiconductors – think IBM, Rigetti, Google, and D-Wave (quant Read more…

By John Russell

Tackling HPC’s Memory and I/O Bottlenecks with On-Node, Non-Volatile RAM

November 8, 2019

On-node, non-volatile memory (NVRAM) is a game-changing technology that can remove many I/O and memory bottlenecks and provide a key enabler for exascale. Th Read more…

By Jan Rowell

MLPerf Releases First Inference Benchmark Results; Nvidia Touts its Showing

November 6, 2019

MLPerf.org, the young AI-benchmarking consortium, today issued the first round of results for its inference test suite. Among organizations with submissions wer Read more…

By John Russell

Azure Cloud First with AMD Epyc Rome Processors

November 6, 2019

At Ignite 2019 this week, Microsoft's Azure cloud team and AMD announced an expansion of their partnership that began in 2017 when Azure debuted Epyc-backed ins Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Launches Credit Card-Sized 21 TOPS Jetson System for Edge Devices

November 6, 2019

Nvidia has launched a new addition to its Jetson product line: a credit card-sized (70x45mm) form factor delivering up to 21 trillion operations/second (TOPS) o Read more…

By Doug Black

In Memoriam: Steve Tuecke, Globus Co-founder

November 4, 2019

HPCwire is deeply saddened to report that Steve Tuecke, longtime scientist at Argonne National Lab and University of Chicago, has passed away at age 52. Tuecke Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Spending Spree: Hyperscalers Bought $57B of IT in 2018, $10B+ by Google – But Is Cloud on Horizon?

October 31, 2019

Hyperscalers are the masters of the IT universe, gravitational centers of increasing pull in the emerging age of data-driven compute and AI.  In the high-stake Read more…

By Doug Black

Cray Debuts ClusterStor E1000 Finishing Remake of Portfolio for ‘Exascale Era’

October 30, 2019

Cray, now owned by HPE, today introduced the ClusterStor E1000 storage platform, which leverages Cray software and mixes hard disk drives (HDD) and flash memory Read more…

By John Russell

Supercomputer-Powered AI Tackles a Key Fusion Energy Challenge

August 7, 2019

Fusion energy is the Holy Grail of the energy world: low-radioactivity, low-waste, zero-carbon, high-output nuclear power that can run on hydrogen or lithium. T Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Using AI to Solve One of the Most Prevailing Problems in CFD

October 17, 2019

How can artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance computing (HPC) solve mesh generation, one of the most commonly referenced problems in computational engineering? A new study has set out to answer this question and create an industry-first AI-mesh application... Read more…

By James Sharpe

Cray Wins NNSA-Livermore ‘El Capitan’ Exascale Contract

August 13, 2019

Cray has won the bid to build the first exascale supercomputer for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laborator Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

DARPA Looks to Propel Parallelism

September 4, 2019

As Moore’s law runs out of steam, new programming approaches are being pursued with the goal of greater hardware performance with less coding. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency is launching a new programming effort aimed at leveraging the benefits of massive distributed parallelism with less sweat. Read more…

By George Leopold

AMD Launches Epyc Rome, First 7nm CPU

August 8, 2019

From a gala event at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco yesterday (Aug. 7), AMD launched its second-generation Epyc Rome x86 chips, based on its 7nm proce Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

D-Wave’s Path to 5000 Qubits; Google’s Quantum Supremacy Claim

September 24, 2019

On the heels of IBM’s quantum news last week come two more quantum items. D-Wave Systems today announced the name of its forthcoming 5000-qubit system, Advantage (yes the name choice isn’t serendipity), at its user conference being held this week in Newport, RI. Read more…

By John Russell

Ayar Labs to Demo Photonics Chiplet in FPGA Package at Hot Chips

August 19, 2019

Silicon startup Ayar Labs continues to gain momentum with its DARPA-backed optical chiplet technology that puts advanced electronics and optics on the same chip Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Crystal Ball Gazing: IBM’s Vision for the Future of Computing

October 14, 2019

Dario Gil, IBM’s relatively new director of research, painted a intriguing portrait of the future of computing along with a rough idea of how IBM thinks we’ Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

ISC 2019 Virtual Booth Video Tour

CRAY
CRAY
DDN
DDN
DELL EMC
DELL EMC
GOOGLE
GOOGLE
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
PANASAS
PANASAS
VERNE GLOBAL
VERNE GLOBAL

Intel Confirms Retreat on Omni-Path

August 1, 2019

Intel Corp.’s plans to make a big splash in the network fabric market for linking HPC and other workloads has apparently belly-flopped. The chipmaker confirmed to us the outlines of an earlier report by the website CRN that it has jettisoned plans for a second-generation version of its Omni-Path interconnect... Read more…

By Staff report

Kubernetes, Containers and HPC

September 19, 2019

Software containers and Kubernetes are important tools for building, deploying, running and managing modern enterprise applications at scale and delivering enterprise software faster and more reliably to the end user — while using resources more efficiently and reducing costs. Read more…

By Daniel Gruber, Burak Yenier and Wolfgang Gentzsch, UberCloud

Dell Ramps Up HPC Testing of AMD Rome Processors

October 21, 2019

Dell Technologies is wading deeper into the AMD-based systems market with a growing evaluation program for the latest Epyc (Rome) microprocessors from AMD. In a Read more…

By John Russell

Intel Debuts Pohoiki Beach, Its 8M Neuron Neuromorphic Development System

July 17, 2019

Neuromorphic computing has received less fanfare of late than quantum computing whose mystery has captured public attention and which seems to have generated mo Read more…

By John Russell

Rise of NIH’s Biowulf Mirrors the Rise of Computational Biology

July 29, 2019

The story of NIH’s supercomputer Biowulf is fascinating, important, and in many ways representative of the transformation of life sciences and biomedical res Read more…

By John Russell

Xilinx vs. Intel: FPGA Market Leaders Launch Server Accelerator Cards

August 6, 2019

The two FPGA market leaders, Intel and Xilinx, both announced new accelerator cards this week designed to handle specialized, compute-intensive workloads and un Read more…

By Doug Black

With the Help of HPC, Astronomers Prepare to Deflect a Real Asteroid

September 26, 2019

For years, NASA has been running simulations of asteroid impacts to understand the risks (and likelihoods) of asteroids colliding with Earth. Now, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are preparing for the next, crucial step in planetary defense against asteroid impacts: physically deflecting a real asteroid. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

When Dense Matrix Representations Beat Sparse

September 9, 2019

In our world filled with unintended consequences, it turns out that saving memory space to help deal with GPU limitations, knowing it introduces performance pen Read more…

By James Reinders

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This