Movers and Shakers in HPC: John Gustafson

By Caroline Connor

October 20, 2010

This is the first in a series of columns on movers and shakers in HPC, written by our newest contributing editor, Caroline Connor.

I had the pleasure of working with John Gustafson when he was Chief Technology Officer for ClearSpeed in 2007. Sure, I had heard about John, known for his work in HPC, describing the notion of weak scaling (Gustafson’s Law), introducing the first commercial computer cluster, winning the first Gordon Bell Award and all that. What surprised me was that there was so much more to John than the public persona. Here is a guy who is a former trampoline gymnast, built his own harpsichords at age 16, and grows orchids in his spare time. All of this is not lost upon me while I sit poolside at John’s lovely home, wondering what else I might uncover as I pull out my recorder.

HPCwire: John, you’re known for your “Reevaluating Amdahl’s Law” paper. Have you ever met Gene Amdahl? Is there any kind of debate still going on between the two of you?

John: (Laughs) I’ve met Gene, and have lunch with him every now and then; he lives right here in the Bay Area. We get along great. No, there’s no debate whatsoever. I’ve asked him things about his “law” that have been bothering me for years, and confirmed that he never meant his 1967 talk to be used to stop progress in parallel processing the way it has. He was debating Slotnick about the architecture of what would become the ILLIAC IV, saying that if you have one instruction stream, then the operating system part of that instruction stream will kill the parallelism. Gene told me that with modern systems, where every processor has its own instruction control, that argument doesn’t apply at all. So no, there’s no rivalry. I admire the man immensely and am honored to have any association with him.

HPCwire: So, what is behind your fascination with historical computers, like the 1939 Atanasoff-Berry Computer that you helped to reconstruct? It seems odd that a guy who works at the leading edge of supercomputing also works on machines that are a trillion times slower.

John: The technology of the era isn’t the important part; it’s what you do with it. So each generation rediscovers clever “tricks” about using tubes, discrete transistors, bit-slice logic, VLSI… and gives it a new name without realizing that there are many giants whose shoulders they could stand on. Another part of it is that Atanasoff has not received the credit he deserves for inventing electronic digital computing. Reconstructing his machine helped to set the record straight, and proved to people that his computer really worked.

HPCwire: I heard that you recently started managing Intel’s Ubiquitous High Performance Computing project for DARPA. What can you tell us about your new role and the project?

John: Well, this is my third time managing a grand “let’s build a big computer” project for DARPA. The first was when Steve Squires was leading the charge at DARPA in the 1980s, which led to the early hypercube projects and eventually to commodity clusters. The second was at Sun Microsystems when DARPA’s Bob Graybill was refocusing everyone on productivity instead of raw specs, and his HPCS program did a lot to realign people with the issues that really matter to computer users. Now, it’s the UHPC program. The goal is to produce an exaflop, or an exa-op, with less than 20 megawatts of electricity. If anyone can get the power efficiency that high in a general-purpose computer, it’s Intel. The aspect most interesting to me is the software part of the challenge. How much are we going to expose the architecture to the compiler developers and the library designers, versus the scientists and engineers who simply want to use the system to get work done? And do people have any idea about how power-hungry and numerically shaky our current “double precision” arithmetic will be when you’re doing a quintillion operations per second? I don’t think they do. So being able to direct such an effort is nothing less than fascinating. Finding time for outside activities just got a whole lot harder!

HPCwire: Speaking of which, what are your favorite hobbies, sports and other interests?

John: Oh, my. I didn’t expect that one. I was once a gymnast and pretty good on the trampoline, but that was quite a while ago. These days I spend my spare time playing piano and harpsichord. I actually learned to snow ski for the first time last year, and I plan on skiing more this season. Other than that, I usually enjoy the great California weather by swimming and hiking. At this point after taking on my new responsibilities for Intel, I feel lucky just to get outdoors enough to get some Vitamin D.

HPCwire: So, how old were you when you first started experimenting with electronics?

John: Oh my god, you would ask this. I don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud about it, but I was six years old when I was assembling radio transmitters. I entered one in the science fair when I was in first grade, and won. What a geek I was! I saved up for a helium-neon laser and managed to get one when I was fifteen. I had indulgent parents who let me take over three rooms in the basement to make holograms, perform dubious chemical experiments, and generally do the kind of thing you might see in the Amateur Scientist column of Scientific American. By the time I entered Caltech as a freshman, I probably had about a thousand hours of hands-on lab experience, so the chemistry and physics courses seemed pretty easy.

My parents weren’t just indulgent, they were excellent guides. My mother had been an electronics technician at Collins Radio, now Collins-Rockwell, and my father was a chemical engineer turned MD, both as the result of World War II. One of my earliest memories was being taught about the polarity of batteries and electrolytic capacitors by my mother while trying to figure out what wasn’t working on the Heathkit breadboard circuit I just assembled. How geeky is that?

HPCwire: What are two or three interesting things about you that relatively few (or none) of your colleagues or friends know?

John: (Laughs) Well, my grandfather’s first cousin was Greta Garbo. Most of the family who came over from Sweden simply dropped the extra “s” in Gustafsson, but she probably followed someone’s good advice that even ‘Gustafson’ wouldn’t make it in Hollywood and changed her last name completely. Like my grandfather, she was from a poor farm on the outskirts of Stockholm.

Another thing people don’t know is that my father was the first guy to introduce computers into private hospitals in the US. People back then couldn’t figure out what possible use a computer could have in a hospital, but he persisted and said it could plan the diets of everyone, grade their psychological tests, maybe even monitor their electrocardiograms automatically. That was 1961 and 1962. When he visited IBM, I asked if I could go along. So here I was, this seven year old, touring one of the IBM sites in New York, slack-jawed at signs that said things like “Danger: Laser Light”… well, that was where they were working on the very first laser printers. I couldn’t understand why the reel-to-reel tape players kept starting and stopping; I thought they must all have been broken, and I wondered why no one could get them to work properly.

HPCwire: Just out of curiosity, why did you join ClearSpeed a few years ago? Based on your own personal experience, can you share any insights as to why some companies struggle in the HPC market place and so few survive?

John: Thomas Sterling told me once, “I figured out why you joined ClearSpeed: You’re re-living your youth.” I laughed, and knew exactly what he meant. I actually started my career at Floating Point Systems, a company that turned general-purpose computers into compute-intensive workhorses by adding special hardware for high FLOPS rates. I smiled when I got a pitch from ClearSpeed, who thought they’d invented the idea of using accelerators to plug into general-purpose boxes. I said, “So, your target markets are chemistry, structural analysis, and improving LINPACK scores, right?” To which they replied, amazed, “Yeah, how did you know that?” A few weeks later, I was offered the role of CTO and I agreed. It was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Seriously, in my personal opinion, HPC companies usually fail because they don’t identify their customers and their customer needs very accurately. Seymour Cray didn’t make that mistake; he was brilliant at knowing his customer base and what they wanted and needed.

HPCwire: I read just recently that Massively Parallel Technologies has announced a new software environment. As former CEO, can you share some of the history with us?

John: DARPA introduced me to MPT during the HPCS program, saying they had some very innovative ideas worth looking into. Gene Amdahl is on their technical advisory board, so I knew I should take them seriously. I was asked to take the reins to get them better connected to the mainstream HPC community, which I did. MPT has a technology for parallel programming that overlaps communication so well it allows scaling to millions of processors. The latest announcement is about something quite different. They’ve created a way to build programs that looks like the Apps Store, but hierarchical. Sort of the antithesis of open source; you get financial reward for every improvement you can make in a software supply chain. I would probably still be there had Intel not recruited me to direct their Santa Clara research lab in 2009. It was an offer I simply could not resist.

HPCwire: How would you describe yourself to someone who has never met you before, or knows nothing of your background?

John: Whew. That’s hard to do. I’d say that I’m an odd mixture of technophile and extrovert. I love public speaking, meeting people and talking to customers, which I notice isn’t true for a lot of scientist-engineer types. So I guess I’d say, “I’m a research scientist with a right brain.”

HPCwire: Lastly, what do you consider your greatest personal achievement?

John: Being influential in the adoption of parallel processing as a mainstream approach. Until 1988, when I wrote the paper about reevaluating Amdahl’s law, parallel processing was simply an academic curiosity that was viewed somewhat derisively by the big computer companies. When my team at Sandia — thank you, Gary Montry and Bob Benner — demonstrated that you could really get huge speedups on huge numbers of processors, it finally got people to change their minds. I am still amused by people out there gnashing their teeth about how to get performance out of multicore chips. Depending on what school they went to, they might think Amdahl proved that parallel processing will never work, or on the other hand, they might have read my paper and now have a different perception of how we use bigger computers to solve bigger problems, and not to solve the problems that fit existing computers. If that’s what I wind up being remembered for, I have no complaints.

About the Author

An avid HPC watcher and established technology marketing professional; Caroline resides in the California Bay Area and recently joined the HPCwire team as a contributing editor. You can reach her at caroline.connor@longstonegroup.com.

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!

US Exascale Computing Update with Paul Messina

December 8, 2016

Around the world, efforts are ramping up to cross the next major computing threshold with machines that are 50-100x more performant than today’s fastest number crunchers.  Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Weekly Twitter Roundup (Dec. 8, 2016)

December 8, 2016

Here at HPCwire, we aim to keep the HPC community apprised of the most relevant and interesting news items that get tweeted throughout the week. Read more…

By Thomas Ayres

Qualcomm Targets Intel Datacenter Dominance with 10nm ARM-based Server Chip

December 8, 2016

Claiming no less than a reshaping of the future of Intel-dominated datacenter computing, Qualcomm Technologies, the market leader in smartphone chips, announced the forthcoming availability of what it says is the world’s first 10nm processor for servers, based on ARM Holding’s chip designs. Read more…

By Doug Black

Which Schools Produce the Top Coders in the World?

December 8, 2016

Ever wonder which universities worldwide produce the best coders? The answers may surprise you, at least as judged by the results of a competition posted yesterday on the HackerRank blog. Read more…

By John Russell

Enlisting Deep Learning in the War on Cancer

December 7, 2016

Sometime in Q2 2017 the first ‘results’ of the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer (JDACS4C) will become publicly available according to Rick Stevens. He leads one of three JDACS4C pilot projects pressing deep learning (DL) into service in the War on Cancer. The pilots, supported in part by DOE exascale funding, not only seek to do good by advancing cancer research and therapy but also to advance deep learning capabilities and infrastructure with an eye towards eventual use on exascale machines. Read more…

By John Russell

DDN Enables 50TB/Day Trans-Pacific Data Transfer for Yahoo Japan

December 6, 2016

Transferring data from one data center to another in search of lower regional energy costs isn’t a new concept, but Yahoo Japan is putting the idea into transcontinental effect with a system that transfers 50TB of data a day from Japan to the U.S., where electricity costs a quarter of the rates in Japan. Read more…

By Doug Black

Infographic Highlights Career of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

December 5, 2016

Dr. Grace Murray Hopper (December 9, 1906 – January 1, 1992) was an early pioneer of computer science and one of the most famous women achievers in a field dominated by men. Read more…

By Staff

Ganthier, Turkel on the Dell EMC Road Ahead

December 5, 2016

Who is Dell EMC and why should you care? Glad you asked is Jim Ganthier’s quick response. Ganthier is SVP for validated solutions and high performance computing for the new (even bigger) technology giant Dell EMC following Dell’s acquisition of EMC in September. In this case, says Ganthier, the blending of the two companies is a 1+1 = 5 proposition. Not bad math if you can pull it off. Read more…

By John Russell

US Exascale Computing Update with Paul Messina

December 8, 2016

Around the world, efforts are ramping up to cross the next major computing threshold with machines that are 50-100x more performant than today’s fastest number crunchers.  Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Enlisting Deep Learning in the War on Cancer

December 7, 2016

Sometime in Q2 2017 the first ‘results’ of the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer (JDACS4C) will become publicly available according to Rick Stevens. He leads one of three JDACS4C pilot projects pressing deep learning (DL) into service in the War on Cancer. The pilots, supported in part by DOE exascale funding, not only seek to do good by advancing cancer research and therapy but also to advance deep learning capabilities and infrastructure with an eye towards eventual use on exascale machines. Read more…

By John Russell

Ganthier, Turkel on the Dell EMC Road Ahead

December 5, 2016

Who is Dell EMC and why should you care? Glad you asked is Jim Ganthier’s quick response. Ganthier is SVP for validated solutions and high performance computing for the new (even bigger) technology giant Dell EMC following Dell’s acquisition of EMC in September. In this case, says Ganthier, the blending of the two companies is a 1+1 = 5 proposition. Not bad math if you can pull it off. Read more…

By John Russell

AWS Launches Massive 100 Petabyte ‘Sneakernet’

December 1, 2016

Amazon Web Services now offers a way to move data into its cloud by the truckload. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Lighting up Aurora: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of the DOE’s Upcoming 200 Petaflops Supercomputer

December 1, 2016

In April 2015, U.S. Department of Energy Undersecretary Franklin Orr announced that Intel would be the prime contractor for Aurora: Read more…

By Jan Rowell

Seagate-led SAGE Project Delivers Update on Exascale Goals

November 29, 2016

Roughly a year and a half after its launch, the SAGE exascale storage project led by Seagate has delivered a substantive interim report – Data Storage for Extreme Scale. Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Sees Bright Future for AI Supercomputing

November 23, 2016

Graphics chipmaker Nvidia made a strong showing at SC16 in Salt Lake City last week. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE-SGI to Tackle Exascale and Enterprise Targets

November 22, 2016

At first blush, and maybe second blush too, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s (HPE) purchase of SGI seems like an unambiguous win-win. SGI’s advanced shared memory technology, its popular UV product line (Hanna), deep vertical market expertise, and services-led go-to-market capability all give HPE a leg up in its drive to remake itself. Bear in mind HPE came into existence just a year ago with the split of Hewlett-Packard. The computer landscape, including HPC, is shifting with still unclear consequences. One wonders who’s next on the deal block following Dell’s recent merger with EMC. Read more…

By John Russell

Why 2016 Is the Most Important Year in HPC in Over Two Decades

August 23, 2016

In 1994, two NASA employees connected 16 commodity workstations together using a standard Ethernet LAN and installed open-source message passing software that allowed their number-crunching scientific application to run on the whole “cluster” of machines as if it were a single entity. Read more…

By Vincent Natoli, Stone Ridge Technology

IBM Advances Against x86 with Power9

August 30, 2016

After offering OpenPower Summit attendees a limited preview in April, IBM is unveiling further details of its next-gen CPU, Power9, which the tech mainstay is counting on to regain market share ceded to rival Intel. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AWS Beats Azure to K80 General Availability

September 30, 2016

Amazon Web Services has seeded its cloud with Nvidia Tesla K80 GPUs to meet the growing demand for accelerated computing across an increasingly-diverse range of workloads. The P2 instance family is a welcome addition for compute- and data-focused users who were growing frustrated with the performance limitations of Amazon's G2 instances, which are backed by three-year-old Nvidia GRID K520 graphics cards. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Think Fast – Is Neuromorphic Computing Set to Leap Forward?

August 15, 2016

Steadily advancing neuromorphic computing technology has created high expectations for this fundamentally different approach to computing. Read more…

By John Russell

The Exascale Computing Project Awards $39.8M to 22 Projects

September 7, 2016

The Department of Energy’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP) hit an important milestone today with the announcement of its first round of funding, moving the nation closer to its goal of reaching capable exascale computing by 2023. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

ARM Unveils Scalable Vector Extension for HPC at Hot Chips

August 22, 2016

ARM and Fujitsu today announced a scalable vector extension (SVE) to the ARMv8-A architecture intended to enhance ARM capabilities in HPC workloads. Fujitsu is the lead silicon partner in the effort (so far) and will use ARM with SVE technology in its post K computer, Japan’s next flagship supercomputer planned for the 2020 timeframe. This is an important incremental step for ARM, which seeks to push more aggressively into mainstream and HPC server markets. Read more…

By John Russell

IBM Debuts Power8 Chip with NVLink and Three New Systems

September 8, 2016

Not long after revealing more details about its next-gen Power9 chip due in 2017, IBM today rolled out three new Power8-based Linux servers and a new version of its Power8 chip featuring Nvidia’s NVLink interconnect. Read more…

By John Russell

Vectors: How the Old Became New Again in Supercomputing

September 26, 2016

Vector instructions, once a powerful performance innovation of supercomputing in the 1970s and 1980s became an obsolete technology in the 1990s. But like the mythical phoenix bird, vector instructions have arisen from the ashes. Here is the history of a technology that went from new to old then back to new. Read more…

By Lynd Stringer

Leading Solution Providers

US, China Vie for Supercomputing Supremacy

November 14, 2016

The 48th edition of the TOP500 list is fresh off the presses and while there is no new number one system, as previously teased by China, there are a number of notable entrants from the US and around the world and significant trends to report on. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Launches Silicon Photonics Chip, Previews Next-Gen Phi for AI

August 18, 2016

At the Intel Developer Forum, held in San Francisco this week, Intel Senior Vice President and General Manager Diane Bryant announced the launch of Intel's Silicon Photonics product line and teased a brand-new Phi product, codenamed "Knights Mill," aimed at machine learning workloads. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU Benchmarking: Haswell Versus POWER8

June 2, 2015

With OpenPOWER activity ramping up and IBM’s prominent role in the upcoming DOE machines Summit and Sierra, it’s a good time to look at how the IBM POWER CPU stacks up against the x86 Xeon Haswell CPU from Intel. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Dell EMC Engineers Strategy to Democratize HPC

September 29, 2016

The freshly minted Dell EMC division of Dell Technologies is on a mission to take HPC mainstream with a strategy that hinges on engineered solutions, beginning with a focus on three industry verticals: manufacturing, research and life sciences. "Unlike traditional HPC where everybody bought parts, assembled parts and ran the workloads and did iterative engineering, we want folks to focus on time to innovation and let us worry about the infrastructure," said Jim Ganthier, senior vice president, validated solutions organization at Dell EMC Converged Platforms Solution Division. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Beyond von Neumann, Neuromorphic Computing Steadily Advances

March 21, 2016

Neuromorphic computing – brain inspired computing – has long been a tantalizing goal. The human brain does with around 20 watts what supercomputers do with megawatts. And power consumption isn’t the only difference. Fundamentally, brains ‘think differently’ than the von Neumann architecture-based computers. While neuromorphic computing progress has been intriguing, it has still not proven very practical. Read more…

By John Russell

Container App ‘Singularity’ Eases Scientific Computing

October 20, 2016

HPC container platform Singularity is just six months out from its 1.0 release but already is making inroads across the HPC research landscape. It's in use at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), where Singularity founder Gregory Kurtzer has worked in the High Performance Computing Services (HPCS) group for 16 years. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Micron, Intel Prepare to Launch 3D XPoint Memory

August 16, 2016

Micron Technology used last week’s Flash Memory Summit to roll out its new line of 3D XPoint memory technology jointly developed with Intel while demonstrating the technology in solid-state drives. Micron claimed its Quantx line delivers PCI Express (PCIe) SSD performance with read latencies at less than 10 microseconds and writes at less than 20 microseconds. Read more…

By George Leopold

D-Wave SC16 Update: What’s Bo Ewald Saying These Days

November 18, 2016

Tucked in a back section of the SC16 exhibit hall, quantum computing pioneer D-Wave has been talking up its new 2000-qubit processor announced in September. Forget for a moment the criticism sometimes aimed at D-Wave. This small Canadian company has sold several machines including, for example, ones to Lockheed and NASA, and has worked with Google on mapping machine learning problems to quantum computing. In July Los Alamos National Laboratory took possession of a 1000-quibit D-Wave 2X system that LANL ordered a year ago around the time of SC15. Read more…

By John Russell

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