Green Cred

By Michael Feldman

April 9, 2009

Everyone is talking up “green computing” these days, to the point where it’s become background noise that pervades all of IT marketing. But it would be hard to find a truly greener story than the one SiCortex has been pitching since it debuted its power-sipping HPC machines in 2006. The company’s Linux clusters are purpose-built for high performance computing, and deliver one of the best — if not the best — performance-per-watt experiences in the industry.

Unlike your typical teraflop machines, SiCortex systems are built using home-grown MIPS system-on-a-chip (SoC) hardware with an integrated communication fabric to tie the processors together. The general philosophy is to use larger numbers of slower processors to achieve a better balance between compute, memory and I/O performance. The result is that these machines deliver compute cycles with just a fraction of the power consumption of a vanilla x86 commodity cluster. In fact, the SiCortex hardware is on par with the energy efficiency of the new IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputers — not too surprising when you consider both architectures use low-power SoC designs and proprietary system interconnects to achieve highly-streamlined HPC.

It looks like SiCortex’s obsession with energy efficiency is starting to pay off. After a couple of years of gathering critical acclaim, it’s now gathering sales. SiCortex added ten new customers in just the first three months of 2009, capping off record revenue growth in back-to-back quarters. Of course, SiCortex only recently started making headway revenue-wise, so record quarters would be expected. But SiCortex VP of Marketing Mark Blessing feels the company’s message is now resonating with the community, adding that they are looking at “an extremely strong pipeline” for the rest of the year.

That’s pretty remarkable news, given the lethargic state of the HPC sever market right now. With the recent demise of SGI, Sun Microsystems in limbo, and other HPC system vendors feeling the squeeze, most HPC system vendors would probably just like to fast-forward to 2010. Not SiCortex. 2009 might end up being a breakout year as more users look at reducing energy costs and carbon emissions as top priorities. And with its focus on government labs, higher education, and the defense/intelligence, the company has conveniently targeted three sectors that stand to weather the economic downturn reasonably well.

But it won’t necessarily be smooth sailing. With all HPC vendors now shipping systems with the latest quad-core x86 chips, energy efficiency is improving all around. The recently-released Nehalem EP processors, in particular, are promising significantly better performance than the previous generation Harpertown chips, all within the same power envelope. Intel is claiming a 2X performance increase on some HPC benchmarks, like LS-Dyna crash simulations and Fluent CFD.

The team at SiCortex thinks Intel is overstating its case, however. According the Jud Leonard, chief architect at SiCortex, the main goal Intel accomplished with Nehalem is relieving some of the memory bottleneck at the chip and node level — something AMD did years ago with the Opteron. What Intel (or AMD for that matter) hasn’t done, says Leonard, is address the node-to-node communication bottleneck, as SiCortex has done with its integrated interconnect architecture.

Kem Stewart, SiCortex’s VP of hardware engineering, agrees, adding that Nehalem’s integrated memory controller will help users with memory starvation problems as they turn on the third and fourth cores on those quad-core chips, but will do little to speed up applications that are fundamentally constrained by InfiniBand or Ethernet communication bandwidth. He notes this is often the case when a problem is scaled beyond a hundred cores or so.

According to Stewart, some of the company’s customers have benchmarked their Nehalem EP machines and shared the results. Stewart says there weren’t any real surprises performance-wise. In a program that scales well, customers noted a 20 percent performance bump compared to the older Harpertown-based systems. While that may be significant, it’s not enough motivation to do a fork-lift upgrade.

SiCortex has its own challenges, however. Because it has thrown its lot in with MIPS, it misses out on the established x86 software ecosystem that’s been building for decades. From its point of view, the underlying instruction set barely matters anymore since application dependencies have been freed from the ISA and moved up to the OS. In the case of HPC, this means Linux, and since SiCortex ships its own Linux implementation with its hardware, customers won’t be concerned that MIPS is running underneath.

“For HPC customers x86 compatibility isn’t all that big a deal,” argues Leonard. “In the Linux world in particular, people are used to all sorts of architectures, and their main concern is that their scripts and other tools work.”

What it has encountered is customers who need an ISV code that has not yet been ported to SiCortex. Leonard admits the list is not very big at the moment, but he says the portfolio is growing fast. According to the company, ISV porting requests more than doubled during last quarter. Since the onus of re-targeting is on the software vendors, the ISVs want to make sure that new ports don’t cannibalize license sales derived from other architectures. So the degree to which ISVs are motivated to add SiCortex versions is an indication of how much they believe the company can expand the market independently of other system vendors.

Of course, SiCortex could decide to switch gears and license Intel’s low-power Atom design if it wanted to join the x86 masses. Doing so would maintain the company’s green theme, but building a new SoC based on a different CPU would be a huge investment of time and money, and from what I gathered from Leonard and Stewart, they didn’t see Atom as the kind of technology worthy of a redesign. Besides, there’s plenty of life left in MIPS and no doubt SiCortex will be upgrading its 700MHz 90nm SoC hardware in due time. A glimpse of what’s possible with MIPS is revealed by RMI’s announcement (PDF) of its upcoming 2.0 GHz, 40nm SoC for the embedded market, although I expect the next move from SiCortex will be 65nm and something around 1.0 GHz.

If SiCortex did have second thoughts about a new architecture, there are plenty of other low-power designs from which to choose — everything from ARM and PowerPC to Tensilica’s exotic Xtensa technology. For its part, SiCortex hasn’t revealed any plans that would take the company down a different path, but it’s keeping its options open. “It would be foolish for anybody in our position not to be looking at alternatives,” says Leonard.

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!

Microsoft Wants to Speed Quantum Development

December 12, 2017

Quantum computing continues to make headlines in what remains of 2017 as tech giants jockey to establish a pole position in the race toward commercialization of quantum. This week, Microsoft took the next step in advanci Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

ESnet Now Moving More Than 1 Petabyte/wk

December 12, 2017

Optimizing ESnet (Energy Sciences Network), the world's fastest network for science, is an ongoing process. Recently a two-year collaboration by ESnet users – the Petascale DTN Project – achieved its ambitious goal t Read more…

HPC-as-a-Service Finds Toehold in Iceland

December 11, 2017

While high-demand workloads (e.g., bitcoin mining) can overheat data center cooling capabilities, at least one data center infrastructure provider has announced an HPC-as-a-service offering that features 100 percent fre Read more…

By Doug Black

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Explore the Origins of Space with COSMOS and Memory-Driven Computing

From the formation of black holes to the origins of space, data is the key to unlocking the secrets of the early universe. Read more…

HPC Iron, Soft, Data, People – It Takes an Ecosystem!

December 11, 2017

Cutting edge advanced computing hardware (aka big iron) does not stand by itself. These computers are the pinnacle of a myriad of technologies that must be carefully woven together by people to create the computational c Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

Microsoft Wants to Speed Quantum Development

December 12, 2017

Quantum computing continues to make headlines in what remains of 2017 as tech giants jockey to establish a pole position in the race toward commercialization of Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Iron, Soft, Data, People – It Takes an Ecosystem!

December 11, 2017

Cutting edge advanced computing hardware (aka big iron) does not stand by itself. These computers are the pinnacle of a myriad of technologies that must be care Read more…

By Alex R. Larzelere

IBM Begins Power9 Rollout with Backing from DOE, Google

December 6, 2017

After over a year of buildup, IBM is unveiling its first Power9 system based on the same architecture as the Department of Energy CORAL supercomputers, Summit a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Microsoft Spins Cycle Computing into Core Azure Product

December 5, 2017

Last August, cloud giant Microsoft acquired HPC cloud orchestration pioneer Cycle Computing. Since then the focus has been on integrating Cycle’s organization Read more…

By John Russell

GlobalFoundries, Ayar Labs Team Up to Commercialize Optical I/O

December 4, 2017

GlobalFoundries (GF) and Ayar Labs, a startup focused on using light, instead of electricity, to transfer data between chips, today announced they've entered in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE In-Memory Platform Comes to COSMOS

November 30, 2017

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is on a mission to accelerate space research. In August, it sent the first commercial-off-the-shelf HPC system into space for testing Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SC17 Cluster Competition: Who Won and Why? Results Analyzed and Over-Analyzed

November 28, 2017

Everyone by now knows that Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU) took home the highest LINPACK Award and the Overall Championship from the recently concluded SC17 Student Cluster Competition. We also already know how the teams did in the Highest LINPACK and Highest HPCG competitions, with Nanyang grabbing bragging rights for both benchmarks. Read more…

By Dan Olds

Perspective: What Really Happened at SC17?

November 22, 2017

SC is over. Now comes the myriad of follow-ups. Inboxes are filled with templated emails from vendors and other exhibitors hoping to win a place in the post-SC thinking of booth visitors. Attendees of tutorials, workshops and other technical sessions will be inundated with requests for feedback. Read more…

By Andrew Jones

US Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer: Aurora in 2021

September 27, 2017

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, in Arlington, Va., yesterday (Sept. 26), it was revealed that the "Aurora" supercompute Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

AMD Showcases Growing Portfolio of EPYC and Radeon-based Systems at SC17

November 13, 2017

AMD’s charge back into HPC and the datacenter is on full display at SC17. Having launched the EPYC processor line in June along with its MI25 GPU the focus he Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Japan Unveils Quantum Neural Network

November 22, 2017

The U.S. and China are leading the race toward productive quantum computing, but it's early enough that ultimate leadership is still something of an open questi Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 20), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Perspective: What Really Happened at SC17?

November 22, 2017

SC is over. Now comes the myriad of follow-ups. Inboxes are filled with templated emails from vendors and other exhibitors hoping to win a place in the post-SC thinking of booth visitors. Attendees of tutorials, workshops and other technical sessions will be inundated with requests for feedback. Read more…

By Andrew Jones

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Tensors Come of Age: Why the AI Revolution Will Help HPC

November 13, 2017

Thirty years ago, parallel computing was coming of age. A bitter battle began between stalwart vector computing supporters and advocates of various approaches to parallel computing. IBM skeptic Alan Karp, reacting to announcements of nCUBE’s 1024-microprocessor system and Thinking Machines’ 65,536-element array, made a public $100 wager that no one could get a parallel speedup of over 200 on real HPC workloads. Read more…

By John Gustafson & Lenore Mullin

Flipping the Flops and Reading the Top500 Tea Leaves

November 13, 2017

The 50th edition of the Top500 list, the biannual publication of the world’s fastest supercomputers based on public Linpack benchmarking results, was released Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Begins Power9 Rollout with Backing from DOE, Google

December 6, 2017

After over a year of buildup, IBM is unveiling its first Power9 system based on the same architecture as the Department of Energy CORAL supercomputers, Summit a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Launches Software Tools to Ease FPGA Programming

September 5, 2017

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have a reputation for being difficult to program, requiring expertise in specialty languages, like Verilog or VHDL. Easin Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This