Cray Expands Narrative on Blue Waters Supercomputer and Company’s New Storage Business

By Nicole Hemsoth

June 12, 2012

Two of Cray’s more notable achievements in 2011 — the contract win of the “Blue Waters” supercomputer re-bid and the addition of a high-performance storage line — are reaping dividends in 2012. In this interview with Barry Bolding, Cray’s vice president of storage and data management, HPCwire takes a behind-the-scenes look at that unusual procurement and the company’s subsequent move into the storage business.

HPCwire: How quickly did Cray need to respond when the Blue Waters procurement re-opened last year?

Barry Bolding: This opportunity was notable for the combination of its timeline, size and scope. Cray often needs to respond quickly and our manufacturing organization is optimized to produce large systems for customers. But the scope of the Blue Waters opportunity was big enough, and the timeframe was short enough, that we knew it would tax not only our own manufacturing, but our entire supply chain. The challenges included producing and delivering more than 270 Cray compute cabinets, a groundbreaking file system with 25 petabytes of storage and sustained aggregate performance of one terabyte per second, and fitting this into NCSA’s existing environment in a compressed timeframe.

HPCwire: What was the timeframe like?

Bolding: The NCSA request for vendors was issued in early August 2011, and by SC11 we were in contract, so this was a very compressed time to evaluate the architecture. We started delivering the first Cray system just after the contract was signed, and most of the hardware for an early science system was in transit by the end of the year.

HPCwire: Did you already have blueprint plans on hand that you could adapt?

Bolding: No, but we have processes in place and experience with building big systems. Our standard compute and storage products are all designed for high scalability. Cray’s blueprint is simply our single focus on HPC. We are optimized for the possibility of very large installations.

HPCwire: What’s the current status of the Blue Waters installation?

Bolding: In the first phase of the delivery, by early March 2012 we made a complete Cray system available for early science users. This Cray XE6 Early Science System has peak performance of more than one petaflop and two petabytes of high performance Cray Sonexion storage. That’s about 15 percent of the final system. The ESS is a standalone system with 48 cabinets that will be incorporated into the final Blue Waters system.

HPCwire: Who has access to the Early Science System?

Bolding: Initially, six research teams were awarded allocations through an NSF-led competition that started with more than two dozen teams. The research of the six teams focuses on topics ranging from supernovae to climate change to the molecular mechanism of HIV infection. Their progress in meeting preliminary goals has been good. In some cases, the Early Science System is already allowing researchers to do things they couldn’t do before. In May 2012, four more research teams were awarded time on the system. They are studying topics including severe weather, the life cycle of stars, and turbulent combustion.

HPCwire: What’s left to do on the Blue Waters deployment?

Bolding: A substantial portion of the hardware is now on site, so the delivery side is less of a major concern. Our current focus is on integration and performance scaling, including the software and the network. This will be largest Gemini network we’ve built. You always encounter new challenges when you build a system bigger than ever before, so we expect to see some new challenges.

HPCwire: Are you getting performance data yet on real-world codes?

Bolding: Users are already giving conference talks and publishing papers on their work using the Early Science System. The storage subsystem is performing and scaling very well. In the final configuration, there will be one terabyte per second of aggregate bandwidth. On the partial system, we’re seeing linear scaling to about 60 gigabytes per second today.

HPCwire: You’ve said that this is the largest supercomputer Cray was ever contracted to deliver. How was this assignment different from other big ones Cray’s tackled?

Bolding: Deploying our largest supercomputer ever and doing so at a site that hasn’t owned a Cray in recent years is a huge job. We often sell very large systems to existing customers that have started with moderate-sized systems, such as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and NERSC. The last time we installed a system of similar magnitude at a site that hadn’t had a Cray in a long time was the “Red Storm” system at Sandia. It’s been nine years since we did that.

Blue Waters will be one of the world’s highest sustained performance configurations on both the compute and storage sides. This is groundbreaking, even for Cray. The storage will be four times larger than on any prior Cray system. It’s no longer just about compute for Cray. World-leading compute and world-leading storage are now the one-two punch for our company.

HPCwire: What’s different about Sonexion storage?

Bolding: The Cray Sonexion storage product line was designed from the ground up for scalability. This is unlike any other Lustre file systems we’ve installed. We couldn’t have met the requirements for NCSA Blue Waters with any current technology other than Sonexion. I believe Sonexion has the best odds of achieving one terabyte per second sustained performance based on its highly scalable building-block architecture. Other vendors are aiming for similar milestone installations, but we see those architectures as less scalable than the Sonexion architecture.

It’s built for high scalability with Scalable Storage Units, or SSUs. Each time you add an SSU you add both bandwidth and capacity to the file system in a very balanced way. The switching and server infrastructure are integrated into the file system racks and cabinets themselves. This is done in the factory so it’s ready to run at the customer site.

This storage architecture also minimizes the switching and cabling needed to any compute module it’s attached to. More conventional architectures require external servers, more complex InfiniBand switching and each server would need many more spinning disks to match the performance of a single Sonexion SSU.

We see all this as adding costs and risks to the ability to scale storage productively. Another unique thing is that Sonexion is also designed as a datacenter-wide file system that connects not just to Cray supercomputers but to any others in the data center.

HPCwire: So do you plan to sell Sonexion products to sites that don’t have Cray supercomputers?

Bolding: Absolutely yes.

HPCwire: How have things been going for the Sonexion products in the marketplace? Has it been hard for HPC buyers to see Cray as a storage vendor?

Bolding: We’re traditionally viewed as an HPC compute company, and customers are still learning to view us as a storage company. But every time we install a new Sonexion system, the perception changes for that customer and that set of users. We’ve already done Sonexion installations in government, academia, and in the energy sector, and they’re all in heavy production mode.

To date, all of these are connected to Cray supercomputers, but we’re starting to sell to non-Cray HPC customers and this will help change current perceptions. Don’t forget that our predecessor, Cray Research, made some of the greatest storage innovations with SSDs and data migration. We work closely with our OEMs to ensure we are on the cutting edge from the perspective of software management, performance, and price-performance. While we’ve worked closely with a storage OEM on it, Sonexion is a Cray offering from the ground up. Our expertise includes Lustre scalability.

HPCwire: NCSA formed 25 domain-specific scientific teams two years before Cray entered the picture and has been working with them to prepare their codes for pursuing sustained petaflop performance on Blue Waters. Has Cray gotten directly involved with these teams?

Bolding: NCSA is the primary driver collaborating with the science teams. NCSA and NSF did highly value Cray’s deep experience with the apps. We have one of the most experienced applications teams in the world. We work with scientists all around the world and we have centers of excellence where we work closely with end-users to help scale up their codes. NCSA saw real value in this.

Today, our apps experts are working closely with NCSA science teams to scale their applications to meet performance expectations. Another Cray system has already enabled sustained petaflops performance on a different workload of five real-world codes. We believe that this demonstrates that Cray systems are more productive at scale than those of any other vendor.

NCSA-NSF users have a different set of very challenging applications, so it won’t be easy to achieve this breakthrough performance level. All applications are different and have all their own challenges. But Blue Waters is a groundbreaking supercomputer and we’re confident it will meet the expectations of NCSA and NSF by enabling users to achieve petascale performance on a range of codes.

HPCwire: Are the requirements of NSF scientific users different from those of DOE scientific users Cray serves?

Bolding: There is no single NSF or DOE user type. We’ve been selling into DOE for a number of years. Some systems, like “Jaguar,” support a small number of apps that are scaling high. NERSC has a much broader mandate and supports a larger number of applications. I think Blue Waters will have both, a broad user base from many scientific domains, and a broad range of scaling requirements and goals, on up to petascale.

The 25 science teams formed by NCSA represent more domains of science than are typical for a DOE site. A subset of Blue Waters users will be running at extreme scale, almost to the full size of the 11.5 petaflop system.

HPCwire: Blue Waters will also be available to industrial users through NCSA’s Private Sector Program. Do these users have any special storage or other requirements?

Bolding: NCSA has a very active private sector program that Cray has joined. We think it’s vital that systems like Blue Waters are leveraged for the good of the economy and American competitiveness. Cray is dedicated to both public-sector and private-sector computing.

Our M-series systems are designed primarily for the private sector. For their most advanced research and in other cases where they don’t have adequate HPC resources of their own, private-sector firms sometimes need access to much larger systems and to expertise in using them. That’s what NCSA’s private sector program is all about, and Cray is now part of this program.

HPCwire: What’s the overall significance of the Blue Waters project for Cray? How does it move you forward as an HPC vendor?

Bolding: NCSA is a flagship site for highlighting Cray as a scalable storage provider, and it’s a great launching point for us. We’ll deploy one of the largest, most capable storage systems in the world there. On the compute side, Blue Waters is the latest in a continuing series of the kinds of big challenges that Cray is organized to face. So, this is an important milestone for us. I don’t think any other company on the planet could deliver the sustained performance we’ll be delivering for Blue Waters in this challenging timeframe.

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!

Glimpses of Today’s Total Solar Eclipse

August 21, 2017

Here are a few arresting images posted by NASA of today’s total solar eclipse. Such astronomical events have always captured our imagination and it’s not hard to understand why such occurrences were often greeted wit Read more…

By John Russell

Tech Giants Outline Battle Plans for Future HPC Market

August 21, 2017

Four companies engaged in a cage fight for leadership in the emerging HPC market of the 2020s are, despite deep differences in some areas, in violent agreement on at least one thing: the power consumption and latency pen Read more…

By Doug Black

Geospatial Data Research Leverages GPUs

August 17, 2017

MapD Technologies, the GPU-accelerated database specialist, said it is working with university researchers on leveraging graphics processors to advance geospatial analytics. The San Francisco-based company is collabor Read more…

By George Leopold

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Leveraging Deep Learning for Fraud Detection

Advancements in computing technologies and the expanding use of e-commerce platforms have dramatically increased the risk of fraud for financial services companies and their customers. Read more…

Intel, NERSC and University Partners Launch New Big Data Center

August 17, 2017

A collaboration between the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), Intel and five Intel Parallel Computing Centers (IPCCs) has resulted in a new Big Data Center (BDC) that Read more…

By Linda Barney

Tech Giants Outline Battle Plans for Future HPC Market

August 21, 2017

Four companies engaged in a cage fight for leadership in the emerging HPC market of the 2020s are, despite deep differences in some areas, in violent agreement Read more…

By Doug Black

Microsoft Bolsters Azure With Cloud HPC Deal

August 15, 2017

Microsoft has acquired cloud computing software vendor Cycle Computing in a move designed to bring orchestration tools along with high-end computing access capabilities to the cloud. Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. Read more…

By George Leopold

HPE Ships Supercomputer to Space Station, Final Destination Mars

August 14, 2017

With a manned mission to Mars on the horizon, the demand for space-based supercomputing is at hand. Today HPE and NASA sent the first off-the-shelf HPC system i Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AMD EPYC Video Takes Aim at Intel’s Broadwell

August 14, 2017

Let the benchmarking begin. Last week, AMD posted a YouTube video in which one of its EPYC-based systems outperformed a ‘comparable’ Intel Broadwell-based s Read more…

By John Russell

Deep Learning Thrives in Cancer Moonshot

August 8, 2017

The U.S. War on Cancer, certainly a worthy cause, is a collection of programs stretching back more than 40 years and abiding under many banners. The latest is t Read more…

By John Russell

IBM Raises the Bar for Distributed Deep Learning

August 8, 2017

IBM is announcing today an enhancement to its PowerAI software platform aimed at facilitating the practical scaling of AI models on today’s fastest GPUs. Scal Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Storage Breakthrough Paves Way for 330TB Tape Cartridges

August 3, 2017

IBM announced yesterday a new record for magnetic tape storage that it says will keep tape storage density on a Moore's law-like path far into the next decade. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AMD Stuffs a Petaflops of Machine Intelligence into 20-Node Rack

August 1, 2017

With its Radeon “Vega” Instinct datacenter GPUs and EPYC “Naples” server chips entering the market this summer, AMD has positioned itself for a two-head Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia’s Mammoth Volta GPU Aims High for AI, HPC

May 10, 2017

At Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference (GTC17) in San Jose, Calif., this morning, CEO Jensen Huang announced the company's much-anticipated Volta architecture a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

Russian Researchers Claim First Quantum-Safe Blockchain

May 25, 2017

The Russian Quantum Center today announced it has overcome the threat of quantum cryptography by creating the first quantum-safe blockchain, securing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, along with classified government communications and other sensitive digital transfers. Read more…

By Doug Black

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Just how close real-wo 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

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of Read more…

By Alex Woodie

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the cam Read more…

By John Russell

Google Debuts TPU v2 and will Add to Google Cloud

May 25, 2017

Not long after stirring attention in the deep learning/AI community by revealing the details of its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), Google last week announced the Read more…

By John Russell

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

Six Exascale PathForward Vendors Selected; DoE Providing $258M

June 15, 2017

The much-anticipated PathForward awards for hardware R&D in support of the Exascale Computing Project were announced today with six vendors selected – AMD Read more…

By John Russell

Top500 Results: Latest List Trends and What’s in Store

June 19, 2017

Greetings from Frankfurt and the 2017 International Supercomputing Conference where the latest Top500 list has just been revealed. Although there were no major Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Clears Path to 5nm with Silicon Nanosheets

June 5, 2017

Two years since announcing the industry’s first 7nm node test chip, IBM and its research alliance partners GlobalFoundries and Samsung have developed a proces Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

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