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 industry updates delivered to you every week!

What We Know about Alice Recoque, Europe’s Second Exascale System

June 24, 2024

Europe officially announced its second exascale system, Alice Recoque, and you can expect to see that name on the Top500 supercomputer list in a few years. Alice Recoque is the new name for a supercomputer with the opera Read more…

Spelunking the HPC and AI GPU Software Stacks

June 21, 2024

As AI continues to reach into every domain of life, the question remains as to what kind of software these tools will run on. The choice in software stacks – or collections of software components that work together to Read more…

HPE and NVIDIA Join Forces and Plan Conquest of Enterprise AI Frontier

June 20, 2024

The HPE Discover 2024 conference is currently in full swing, and the keynote address from Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) CEO Antonio Neri on Tuesday, June 18, was an unforgettable event. Other than being the first busi Read more…

Slide Shows Samsung May be Developing a RISC-V CPU for In-memory AI Chip

June 19, 2024

Samsung may have unintentionally revealed its intent to develop a RISC-V CPU, which a presentation slide showed may be used in an AI chip. The company plans to release an AI accelerator with heavy in-memory processing, b Read more…

ASC24 Student Cluster Competition: Who Won and Why?

June 18, 2024

As is our tradition, we’re going to take a detailed look back at the recently concluded the ASC24 Student Cluster Competition (Asia Supercomputer Community) to see not only who won the various awards, but to figure out Read more…

Qubits 2024: D-Wave’s Steady March to Quantum Success

June 18, 2024

In his opening keynote at D-Wave’s annual Qubits 2024 user meeting, being held in Boston, yesterday and today, CEO Alan Baratz again made the compelling pitch that D-Wave’s brand of analog quantum computing (quantum Read more…

Spelunking the HPC and AI GPU Software Stacks

June 21, 2024

As AI continues to reach into every domain of life, the question remains as to what kind of software these tools will run on. The choice in software stacks – Read more…

HPE and NVIDIA Join Forces and Plan Conquest of Enterprise AI Frontier

June 20, 2024

The HPE Discover 2024 conference is currently in full swing, and the keynote address from Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) CEO Antonio Neri on Tuesday, June 18, Read more…

Slide Shows Samsung May be Developing a RISC-V CPU for In-memory AI Chip

June 19, 2024

Samsung may have unintentionally revealed its intent to develop a RISC-V CPU, which a presentation slide showed may be used in an AI chip. The company plans to Read more…

Qubits 2024: D-Wave’s Steady March to Quantum Success

June 18, 2024

In his opening keynote at D-Wave’s annual Qubits 2024 user meeting, being held in Boston, yesterday and today, CEO Alan Baratz again made the compelling pitch Read more…

Shutterstock_666139696

Argonne’s Rick Stevens on Energy, AI, and a New Kind of Science

June 17, 2024

The world is currently experiencing two of the largest societal upheavals since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. One is the rapid improvement and imp Read more…

Under The Wire: Nearly HPC News (June 13, 2024)

June 13, 2024

As managing editor of the major global HPC news source, the term "news fire hose" is often mentioned. The analogy is quite correct. In any given week, there are Read more…

Labs Keep Supercomputers Alive for Ten Years as Vendors Pull Support Early

June 12, 2024

Laboratories are running supercomputers for much longer, beyond the typical lifespan, as vendors prematurely deprecate the hardware and stop providing support. Read more…

MLPerf Training 4.0 – Nvidia Still King; Power and LLM Fine Tuning Added

June 12, 2024

There are really two stories packaged in the most recent MLPerf  Training 4.0 results, released today. The first, of course, is the results. Nvidia (currently Read more…

Atos Outlines Plans to Get Acquired, and a Path Forward

May 21, 2024

Atos – via its subsidiary Eviden – is the second major supercomputer maker outside of HPE, while others have largely dropped out. The lack of integrators and Atos' financial turmoil have the HPC market worried. If Atos goes under, HPE will be the only major option for building large-scale systems. Read more…

Comparing NVIDIA A100 and NVIDIA L40S: Which GPU is Ideal for AI and Graphics-Intensive Workloads?

October 30, 2023

With long lead times for the NVIDIA H100 and A100 GPUs, many organizations are looking at the new NVIDIA L40S GPU, which it’s a new GPU optimized for AI and g Read more…

Everyone Except Nvidia Forms Ultra Accelerator Link (UALink) Consortium

May 30, 2024

Consider the GPU. An island of SIMD greatness that makes light work of matrix math. Originally designed to rapidly paint dots on a computer monitor, it was then Read more…

Nvidia H100: Are 550,000 GPUs Enough for This Year?

August 17, 2023

The GPU Squeeze continues to place a premium on Nvidia H100 GPUs. In a recent Financial Times article, Nvidia reports that it expects to ship 550,000 of its lat Read more…

Nvidia’s New Blackwell GPU Can Train AI Models with Trillions of Parameters

March 18, 2024

Nvidia's latest and fastest GPU, codenamed Blackwell, is here and will underpin the company's AI plans this year. The chip offers performance improvements from Read more…

Choosing the Right GPU for LLM Inference and Training

December 11, 2023

Accelerating the training and inference processes of deep learning models is crucial for unleashing their true potential and NVIDIA GPUs have emerged as a game- Read more…

Synopsys Eats Ansys: Does HPC Get Indigestion?

February 8, 2024

Recently, it was announced that Synopsys is buying HPC tool developer Ansys. Started in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1970 as Swanson Analysis Systems, Inc. (SASI) by John Swanson (and eventually renamed), Ansys serves the CAE (Computer Aided Engineering)/multiphysics engineering simulation market. Read more…

Some Reasons Why Aurora Didn’t Take First Place in the Top500 List

May 15, 2024

The makers of the Aurora supercomputer, which is housed at the Argonne National Laboratory, gave some reasons why the system didn't make the top spot on the Top Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Nvidia Shipped 3.76 Million Data-center GPUs in 2023, According to Study

June 10, 2024

Nvidia had an explosive 2023 in data-center GPU shipments, which totaled roughly 3.76 million units, according to a study conducted by semiconductor analyst fir Read more…

Google Announces Sixth-generation AI Chip, a TPU Called Trillium

May 17, 2024

On Tuesday May 14th, Google announced its sixth-generation TPU (tensor processing unit) called Trillium.  The chip, essentially a TPU v6, is the company's l Read more…

Intel’s Next-gen Falcon Shores Coming Out in Late 2025 

April 30, 2024

It's a long wait for customers hanging on for Intel's next-generation GPU, Falcon Shores, which will be released in late 2025.  "Then we have a rich, a very Read more…

AMD MI3000A

How AMD May Get Across the CUDA Moat

October 5, 2023

When discussing GenAI, the term "GPU" almost always enters the conversation and the topic often moves toward performance and access. Interestingly, the word "GPU" is assumed to mean "Nvidia" products. (As an aside, the popular Nvidia hardware used in GenAI are not technically... Read more…

The NASA Black Hole Plunge

May 7, 2024

We have all thought about it. No one has done it, but now, thanks to HPC, we see what it looks like. Hold on to your feet because NASA has released videos of wh Read more…

AMD Clears Up Messy GPU Roadmap, Upgrades Chips Annually

June 3, 2024

In the world of AI, there's a desperate search for an alternative to Nvidia's GPUs, and AMD is stepping up to the plate. AMD detailed its updated GPU roadmap, w Read more…

Q&A with Nvidia’s Chief of DGX Systems on the DGX-GB200 Rack-scale System

March 27, 2024

Pictures of Nvidia's new flagship mega-server, the DGX GB200, on the GTC show floor got favorable reactions on social media for the sheer amount of computing po Read more…

How the Chip Industry is Helping a Battery Company

May 8, 2024

Chip companies, once seen as engineering pure plays, are now at the center of geopolitical intrigue. Chip manufacturing firms, especially TSMC and Intel, have b Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire