Gene Amdahl – A Personal Tribute

By John L. Gustafson

November 19, 2015

Amidst all the other awful news of last week, the fact that we lost an amazing and wonderful man might have gotten pushed off the front page: Gene Amdahl passed away on November 10, at age 92. We have lost one of the greatest computer architects of all time; in fact, it was his design of the IBM System/360 in the 1960s that led to the first use of the word “architecture” to describe computer design.

The New York Times has a well-written obituary about the man (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/13/technology/gene-amdahl-pioneer-of-mainframe-computing-dies-at-92.html). I got to know Gene personally a few years after I published discussions of his eponymous law, and I would like to share with HPCwire readers some things about him that are not widely known or mentioned in his obituaries.

When IBM bet on Gene Amdahl’s ideas, it was perhaps the biggest business gamble of all time. They were literally betting the company on a major switch from their older 36-bit designs to a scalable 32-bit design. IBM won the bet, becoming by far the dominant player in the computer industry for decades, and to this day IBM sells computers that contain Amdahl’s instruction set and design ideas. Who else can claim to have designed an instruction set that has lasted over fifty years? And it wasn’t as if he had everyone’s full support at IBM; he had to fight for it. The company politics were quite intense and, as is typical, not everyone was on board with the high-risk change Gene was spearheading. Though he had been an academic, he proved quite talented at navigating company politics and getting IBM aligned to the massive effort.

It is one thing to be so inventive that you can create a mainframe design like the System/360 and its successor, the System/370; Amdahl had to invent it twice, two completely different ways! When he left IBM to found his own company to build rival computers (Amdahl Corporation), he found himself competing with his own patents. The royalties to IBM would have prevented his business from competing successfully, so he started with a clean sheet of paper and created all-new approaches that did not step on any of his early intellectual property, and were both faster and less expensive. That made Amdahl Corporation one of the few companies building computers with IBM-compatible instruction sets that made a successful business at it.

I once asked Gene why it was that his System/360 design did not support parallel computing, as did some of the Burroughs machines from the same era. He replied that he couldn’t figure out what the instructions would be for a parallel computer. It was not, as some might think, because he was opposed to the idea of parallel computing. This may be one of the major myths about Gene Amdahl: that he was fundamentally against parallel processing. He was chagrined that his famous 1967 debate with Daniel Slotnick at an AFIPS conference led people to think this about him.

I wish I could have seen that historic debate in person. The Single-Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD) ILLIAC IV was to have 256 processors when finished, though even the 64-processor version was a breathtakingly daring parallel design when the first pass was completed in 1966. Amdahl had recently introduced his single-CPU time-shared mainframe, so the stage was set. Amdahl estimated that the operating system of a SIMD computer like the ILLIAC IV would take about 25 to 45 percent of the processor cycles, based on his experience with the operating system of the System/360. In his overhead slides, he presented the standard engineering formula for applying two speeds to a fixed-size process, and argued that the ILLIAC IV would only achieve two-fold to four-fold speedup despite having 64 processors. The impact of the argument was huge. Willis Ware referenced it in a RAND report three years later, including the algebraic formula from Gene’s presentation and calling it “Amdahl’s law,” and the name stuck.

Gene told me he never intended that his argument would be applied to distributed memory systems with separate instruction streams, in which he became a believer and supporter in his later years. He and I served on the technical advisory board of Massively Parallel Technologies, and he could not have been a more enthusiastic proponent of the modern approach to massive parallelism.

Many computer architecture books and articles also point to Amdahl’s “guideline” that a well-balanced computer should have “a megaword per megaflop” or similar variants. I tried for years to track down the original source of this guideline, and could not find it anywhere. Then I realized I could simply ask him, since we were about to have lunch together. His answer surprised me: “I never said that.” Nor did he believe it was a good guideline! I suppose one of the hazards of being an industry icon is false attribution. It was a relief, since in the petaflop to exaflop era, we are certainly drifting quite far from that ratio.

I’m at the SC15 conference in Austin as I write this, looking over what seems like endless acres of exhibit hall displays. I believe every one of the companies on the trade show floor owes some or most of their existence to the foundation Gene Amdahl built for them, decades ago. He was THE original Computer Architect, and I will miss him as both as an amazing mentor and as a friend.

 

(Image Source: Computer History Museum)

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!

University of Stuttgart Inaugurates ‘Hawk’ Supercomputer

February 20, 2020

This week, the new “Hawk” supercomputer was inaugurated in a ceremony at the High-Performance Computing Center of the University of Stuttgart (HLRS). Officials, scientists and other stakeholders celebrated the new sy Read more…

By Staff report

US to Triple Its Supercomputing Capacity for Weather and Climate with Two New Crays

February 20, 2020

The blizzard of news around the race for weather and climate supercomputing leadership continues. Just three days after the UK announced a £1.2 billion plan to build the world’s largest weather and climate supercomputer, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Indiana University Researchers Use Supercomputing to Model the State’s Largest Watershed

February 20, 2020

With water stressors on the rise, understanding and protecting water supplies is more important than ever. Now, a team of researchers from Indiana University has created a new climate change data portal to help Indianans Read more…

By Staff report

TACC – Supporting Portable, Reproducible, Computational Science with Containers

February 20, 2020

Researchers who use supercomputers for science typically don't limit themselves to one system. They move their projects to whatever resources are available, often using many different systems simultaneously, in their lab Read more…

By Aaron Dubrow

China Researchers Set Distance Record in Quantum Memory Entanglement

February 20, 2020

Efforts to develop the necessary capabilities for building a practical ‘quantum-based’ internet have been ongoing for years. One of the biggest challenges is being able to maintain and manage entanglement of remote q Read more…

By John Russell

AWS Solution Channel

Challenging the barriers to High Performance Computing in the Cloud

Cloud computing helps democratize High Performance Computing by placing powerful computational capabilities in the hands of more researchers, engineers, and organizations who may lack access to sufficient on-premises infrastructure. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Intelligent HPC – Keeping Hard Work at Bay(es)

Since the dawn of time, humans have looked for ways to make their lives easier. Over the centuries human ingenuity has given us inventions such as the wheel and simple machines – which help greatly with tasks that would otherwise be extremely laborious. Read more…

New Algorithm Allows PCs to Challenge HPC in Weather Forecasting

February 19, 2020

Accurate weather forecasting has, by and large, been situated squarely in the domain of high-performance computing – just this week, the UK announced a nearly $1.6 billion investment in the world’s largest supercompu Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

US to Triple Its Supercomputing Capacity for Weather and Climate with Two New Crays

February 20, 2020

The blizzard of news around the race for weather and climate supercomputing leadership continues. Just three days after the UK announced a £1.2 billion plan to build the world’s largest weather and climate supercomputer, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Japan’s AIST Benchmarks Intel Optane; Cites Benefit for HPC and AI

February 19, 2020

Last April Intel released its Optane Data Center Persistent Memory Module (DCPMM) – byte addressable nonvolatile memory – to increase main memory capacity a Read more…

By John Russell

UK Announces £1.2 Billion Weather and Climate Supercomputer

February 19, 2020

While the planet is heating up, so is the race for global leadership in weather and climate computing. In a bombshell announcement, the UK government revealed p Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

The Massive GPU Cloudburst Experiment Plays a Smaller, More Productive Encore

February 13, 2020

In November, researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and the IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) set out to break the internet – or Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Eni to Retake Industry HPC Crown with Launch of HPC5

February 12, 2020

With the launch of its Dell-built HPC5 system, Italian energy company Eni regains its position atop the industrial supercomputing leaderboard. At 52-petaflops p Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Trump Budget Proposal Again Slashes Science Spending

February 11, 2020

President Donald Trump’s FY2021 U.S. Budget, submitted to Congress this week, again slashes science spending. It’s a $4.8 trillion statement of priorities, Read more…

By John Russell

Policy: Republicans Eye Bigger Science Budgets; NSF Celebrates 70th, Names Idea Machine Winners

February 5, 2020

It’s a busy week for science policy. Yesterday, the National Science Foundation announced winners of its 2026 Idea Machine contest seeking directions for futu Read more…

By John Russell

Fujitsu A64FX Supercomputer to Be Deployed at Nagoya University This Summer

February 3, 2020

Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced today that it will supply Nagoya University Information Technology Center with the first commercial supercomputer powered Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Julia Programming’s Dramatic Rise in HPC and Elsewhere

January 14, 2020

Back in 2012 a paper by four computer scientists including Alan Edelman of MIT introduced Julia, A Fast Dynamic Language for Technical Computing. At the time, t Read more…

By John Russell

Cray, Fujitsu Both Bringing Fujitsu A64FX-based Supercomputers to Market in 2020

November 12, 2019

The number of top-tier HPC systems makers has shrunk due to a steady march of M&A activity, but there is increased diversity and choice of processing compon Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SC19: IBM Changes Its HPC-AI Game Plan

November 25, 2019

It’s probably fair to say IBM is known for big bets. Summit supercomputer – a big win. Red Hat acquisition – looking like a big win. OpenPOWER and Power processors – jury’s out? At SC19, long-time IBMer Dave Turek sketched out a different kind of bet for Big Blue – a small ball strategy, if you’ll forgive the baseball analogy... Read more…

By John Russell

Intel Debuts New GPU – Ponte Vecchio – and Outlines Aspirations for oneAPI

November 17, 2019

Intel today revealed a few more details about its forthcoming Xe line of GPUs – the top SKU is named Ponte Vecchio and will be used in Aurora, the first plann Read more…

By John Russell

IBM Unveils Latest Achievements in AI Hardware

December 13, 2019

“The increased capabilities of contemporary AI models provide unprecedented recognition accuracy, but often at the expense of larger computational and energet Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

SC19: Welcome to Denver

November 17, 2019

A significant swath of the HPC community has come to Denver for SC19, which began today (Sunday) with a rich technical program. As is customary, the ribbon cutt Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fujitsu A64FX Supercomputer to Be Deployed at Nagoya University This Summer

February 3, 2020

Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced today that it will supply Nagoya University Information Technology Center with the first commercial supercomputer powered Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

51,000 Cloud GPUs Converge to Power Neutrino Discovery at the South Pole

November 22, 2019

At the dead center of the South Pole, thousands of sensors spanning a cubic kilometer are buried thousands of meters beneath the ice. The sensors are part of Ic Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Leading Solution Providers

SC 2019 Virtual Booth Video Tour

AMD
AMD
ASROCK RACK
ASROCK RACK
AWS
AWS
CEJN
CJEN
CRAY
CRAY
DDN
DDN
DELL EMC
DELL EMC
IBM
IBM
MELLANOX
MELLANOX
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
PANASAS
PANASAS
SIX NINES IT
SIX NINES IT
VERNE GLOBAL
VERNE GLOBAL
WEKAIO
WEKAIO

Jensen Huang’s SC19 – Fast Cars, a Strong Arm, and Aiming for the Cloud(s)

November 20, 2019

We’ve come to expect Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang’s annual SC keynote to contain stunning graphics and lively bravado (with plenty of examples) in support of GPU Read more…

By John Russell

Top500: US Maintains Performance Lead; Arm Tops Green500

November 18, 2019

The 54th Top500, revealed today at SC19, is a familiar list: the U.S. Summit (ORNL) and Sierra (LLNL) machines, offering 148.6 and 94.6 petaflops respectively, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Azure Cloud First with AMD Epyc Rome Processors

November 6, 2019

At Ignite 2019 this week, Microsoft's Azure cloud team and AMD announced an expansion of their partnership that began in 2017 when Azure debuted Epyc-backed instances for storage workloads. The fourth-generation Azure D-series and E-series virtual machines previewed at the Rome launch in August are now generally available. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel’s New Hyderabad Design Center Targets Exascale Era Technologies

December 3, 2019

Intel's Raja Koduri was in India this week to help launch a new 300,000 square foot design and engineering center in Hyderabad, which will focus on advanced com Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

In Memoriam: Steve Tuecke, Globus Co-founder

November 4, 2019

HPCwire is deeply saddened to report that Steve Tuecke, longtime scientist at Argonne National Lab and University of Chicago, has passed away at age 52. Tuecke Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Debuts IC922 Power Server for AI Inferencing and Data Management

January 28, 2020

IBM today launched a Power9-based inference server – the IC922 – that features up to six Nvidia T4 GPUs, PCIe Gen 4 and OpenCAPI connectivity, and can accom Read more…

By John Russell

Cray Debuts ClusterStor E1000 Finishing Remake of Portfolio for ‘Exascale Era’

October 30, 2019

Cray, now owned by HPE, today introduced the ClusterStor E1000 storage platform, which leverages Cray software and mixes hard disk drives (HDD) and flash memory Read more…

By John Russell

D-Wave’s Path to 5000 Qubits; Google’s Quantum Supremacy Claim

September 24, 2019

On the heels of IBM’s quantum news last week come two more quantum items. D-Wave Systems today announced the name of its forthcoming 5000-qubit system, Advantage (yes the name choice isn’t serendipity), at its user conference being held this week in Newport, RI. Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This