Preoccupied with Exascale

By Michael Feldman

March 31, 2011

Every HPC event you attend this year will almost certainly devote much attention to the drive toward exascale. The HPCC conference in Newport, Rhode Island, this week was no exception. Besides the topic of the “missing middle,” which I covered in my previous post, exascale computing was probably the biggest single focus at HPCC this year. That makes sense, given that the supercomputer crowd is always leaning forward, and exascale is obviously the next big milestone.

Or is it? After hearing so much about exascale over the last couple of years, I’m starting to wonder about the rationale of devoting so much effort to what is essentially an arbitrary milestone based on the nomenclature of our decimal numbering system. Why not think about the challenges of 100-petaflop, or even 10-petaflop systems?

For that matter, why not devote more resources to figure out how to make today’s single-petaflop and multi-teraflop systems fundamentally better? Currently, there are only a handful of applications that can use a petaflop of computing. And only a small number of sites can even install a petaflop machine, given their cost (100-plus million dollars) and energy expense (several million dollars per year). In 10 years, exaflop machines will be equally rare and underutilized.

Getting applications to use cutting-edge supercomputers to the fullest extent has always been particularly difficult. Our track record of preparing software — application-level or system-level — for systems 10 years into the future is rather poor. I’m not sure what more we can expect, though. The hardware characteristics of systems not yet born are, by definition, difficult to anticipate.

To mitigate that problem, the HPC digerati are turning to “co-design” (i.e., developing hardware in conjunction with software) for exascale designs. It sounds like a wonderful idea, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of success stories using this approach. There is a reason hardware comes first: it’s the basic foundation upon which the higher abstractions of software are created. To some extent, co-design seems like trying to teach the baby while it’s still in the womb.

At HPCC, four of the 18 sessions focused almost exclusively on exascale, and many of the others at least touched on the topic. The one that particularly caught my attention, though, was the UHPC panel that discussed the work under development for DARPA’s Ubiquitous High Performance Computing program. The panel had the principals of each of the four UHPC projects (Angstrom, Runnemede, X-Caliber, and Echelon) talk about their respective approaches and provide an update on their work.

The scope of this article doesn’t allow me to elaborate on the specifics of each UHPC effort here (but watch this space for additional coverage in the future). In this context, my main interest is pointing out that UHPC is — as panel moderator Thomas Sterling pointed out — not an exascale program, per se. The DARPA RFP that defined this effort focused on “extreme computing” and developing power-efficient hardware, software stacks, operating systems, and programming environments that can scale down as well as up.

One of the goals of UHPC is to produce an architecture that delivers one petaflop in cabinet, with a max power draw of 57 KW. It is these cabinet-sized system that are likely to be widespread in the US DoD (and elsewhere) by the end of the decade. By contrast, exascale systems will be rare and initially serve as special-purpose machines, much as the petascale systems of today are.

Building better software and hardware for today’s level of supercomputing is a laudable goal. There’s plenty of backfilling to do in this regard, and that’s why I think the journey to exascale will be more important than its destination.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is concern that UHPC funding may be axed. At HPCC, rumors were floating about that money to support this effort will not be forthcoming. This was brought up at the panel session, and although all the participants seemed aware of the funding uncertainties, no one knew how this might play out.

In fact, the US government’s budgetary angst was a topic of discussion throughout the HPCC conference, and there was plenty of pessimism to go around. The general consensus was that given the political climate, government-funded HPC might be on the brink of its own recession. The InterSect360 forecast delivered at the conference predicted government HPC would grow modestly this year, but that forecast could turn south quickly if federal and local budgets start slicing off science and technology programs.

Today’s political climate will be especially problematic for exascale work. The community has never done a great job of explaining the societal payback for high performance computing that would generate urgency for those in the government. It’s difficult enough to distill the value of HPC into sound bites, but because exascale HPC is especially hard to explain to non-science types, that work will be particularly hard to sell. The multi-year time frame for exascale is another big disadvantage, given the rather short-term outlook of most politicians in this time of tight money.

With that in mind, HPC may indeed be entering a period of limited public support. If so, the community may have to refocus its priorities, as unpalatable as that seems. Exascale will inevitably happen. Moore’s Law, heterogenous architectures and optical interconnects will see to that. But we may end up drifting into exascale rather than driving it.

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!

Mellanox Reacts to Activist Investor Pressures in Letter to Shareholders

March 16, 2018

Activist investor Starboard Value has been exerting pressure on Mellanox Technologies to increase its returns. In response, the high-performance networking company on Monday, March 12, published a letter to shareholders outlining its proposal for a May 2018 extraordinary general meeting (EGM) of shareholders and highlighting its long-term growth strategy and focus on operating margin improvement. Read more…

By Staff

Quantum Computing vs. Our ‘Caveman Newtonian Brain’: Why Quantum Is So Hard

March 15, 2018

Quantum is coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough. Within 10 to 12 years, we’re told, special-purpose quantum systems will enter the commercial realm. Assuming this happens, we can also assume that quantum will, over extended time, become increasingly general purpose as it delivers mind-blowing power. Read more…

By Doug Black

How the Cloud Is Falling Short for HPC

March 15, 2018

The last couple of years have seen cloud computing gradually build some legitimacy within the HPC world, but still the HPC industry lies far behind enterprise IT in its willingness to outsource computational power. The m Read more…

By Chris Downing

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Achieve Optimal Performance at Scale with High Performance Fabrics for HPC

High Performance Computing (HPC) is unlocking a new era of speed and productivity to fuel business transformation. Rapid advancements in HPC capabilities are helping organizations operate faster and more effectively than ever, but in today’s fast-paced marketplace, a new generation of technologies is required to reach greater scalability and cost-efficiency. Read more…

Stephen Hawking, Legendary Scientist, Dies at 76

March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking passed away at his home in Cambridge, England, in the early morning of March 14; he was 76. Born on January 8, 1942, Hawking was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and director of resea Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

How the Cloud Is Falling Short for HPC

March 15, 2018

The last couple of years have seen cloud computing gradually build some legitimacy within the HPC world, but still the HPC industry lies far behind enterprise I Read more…

By Chris Downing

Stephen Hawking, Legendary Scientist, Dies at 76

March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking passed away at his home in Cambridge, England, in the early morning of March 14; he was 76. Born on January 8, 1942, Hawking was an English theo Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Hyperion Tackles Elusive Quantum Computing Landscape

March 13, 2018

Quantum computing - exciting and off-putting all at once - is a kaleidoscope of technology and market questions whose shapes and positions are far from settled. Read more…

By John Russell

Part Two: Navigating Life Sciences Choppy HPC Waters in 2018

March 8, 2018

2017 was not necessarily the best year to build a large HPC system for life sciences say Ari Berman, VP and GM of consulting services, and Aaron Gardner, direct Read more…

By John Russell

Google Chases Quantum Supremacy with 72-Qubit Processor

March 7, 2018

Google pulled ahead of the pack this week in the race toward "quantum supremacy," with the introduction of a new 72-qubit quantum processor called Bristlecone. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SciNet Launches Niagara, Canada’s Fastest Supercomputer

March 5, 2018

SciNet and the University of Toronto today unveiled "Niagara," Canada's most-powerful supercomputer, comprising 1,500 dense Lenovo ThinkSystem SD530 high-perfor Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Part One: Deep Dive into 2018 Trends in Life Sciences HPC

March 1, 2018

Life sciences is an interesting lens through which to see HPC. It is perhaps not an obvious choice, given life sciences’ relative newness as a heavy user of H Read more…

By John Russell

Alibaba Cloud Launches ‘Bare Metal,’ HPC Instances in Europe

February 28, 2018

Alibaba, the e-commerce giant from China, is taking a run at AWS in the global public cloud computing market with new offerings aimed at the surging demand for Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Inventor Claims to Have Solved Floating Point Error Problem

January 17, 2018

"The decades-old floating point error problem has been solved," proclaims a press release from inventor Alan Jorgensen. The computer scientist has filed for and 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

Researchers Measure Impact of ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Patches on HPC Workloads

January 17, 2018

Computer scientists from the Center for Computational Research, State University of New York (SUNY), University at Buffalo have examined the effect of Meltdown 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

Fast Forward: Five HPC Predictions for 2018

December 21, 2017

What’s on your list of high (and low) lights for 2017? Volta 100’s arrival on the heels of the P100? Appearance, albeit late in the year, of IBM’s Power9? 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

Russian Nuclear Engineers Caught Cryptomining on Lab Supercomputer

February 12, 2018

Nuclear scientists working at the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (RFNC-VNIIEF) have been arrested for using lab supercomputing resources to mine crypto-currency, according to a report in Russia’s Interfax News Agency. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Chip Flaws ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’ Loom Large

January 4, 2018

The HPC and wider tech community have been abuzz this week over the discovery of critical design flaws that impact virtually all contemporary microprocessors. T Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

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

How Meltdown and Spectre Patches Will Affect HPC Workloads

January 10, 2018

There have been claims that the fixes for the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities, named the KPTI (aka KAISER) patches, are going to affect applicatio Read more…

By Rosemary Francis

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

V100 Good but not Great on Select Deep Learning Aps, Says Xcelerit

November 27, 2017

Wringing optimum performance from hardware to accelerate deep learning applications is a challenge that often depends on the specific application in use. A benc Read more…

By John Russell

Lenovo Unveils Warm Water Cooled ThinkSystem SD650 in Rampup to LRZ Install

February 22, 2018

This week Lenovo took the wraps off the ThinkSystem SD650 high-density server with third-generation direct water cooling technology developed in tandem with par Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AMD Wins Another: Baidu to Deploy EPYC on Single Socket Servers

December 13, 2017

When AMD introduced its EPYC chip line in June, the company said a portion of the line was specifically designed to re-invigorate a single socket segment in wha Read more…

By John Russell

World Record: Quantum Computer with 46 Qubits Simulated

December 18, 2017

Scientists from the Jülich Supercomputing Centre have set a new world record. Together with researchers from Wuhan University and the University of Groningen, Read more…

New Blueprint for Converging HPC, Big Data

January 18, 2018

After five annual workshops on Big Data and Extreme-Scale Computing (BDEC), a group of international HPC heavyweights including Jack Dongarra (University of Te Read more…

By John Russell

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