IBM Launches PowerAI Suite Optimized for its Highest Performing Server

By John Russell

November 14, 2016

Last year at SC15, IBM offered its vision of an accelerator-assisted computing paradigm enabled by the OpenPOWER ecosystem of diverse partners and focused on cognitive computing as the key application driver. Since then, Big Blue has been busily productizing the vision and today announced PowerAI, a suite of artificial intelligence (AI) tools optimized for IBM’s high-end server (S822LC for HPC) that features the new Power8+ chip with NVIDIA’s NVLink, and is one of very few systems – perhaps the only – shipping with NVIDIA’s Pascal P100 GPU.

Like others, IBM’s view of HPC is taking a distinct AI and enterprise slant. “People say HPC but they really mean two things, the workload and the infrastructure. We are seeing the traditional scientific computing workloads, but we are also seeing other workloads show up, particular in the enterprise. These are driving the next generation of HPC infrastructure, things like accelerated databases, machine learning and deep learning. That’s essentially saying the same infrastructure we’re using for advanced scale computing is now being used for AI and advanced analytics,” said Sumit Gupta, VP, high-performance and analytics, IBM.

SC, of course, is a shotgun of product and technology announcements and interestingly Intel is expected to announced its own AI productizing efforts and plans later in the week. Both industry heavyweights seem to believe the era of AI, writ large, has arrived. IBM, of course has been delivering that message strongly for a while with IBM Watson being the most visible expression. PowerAI, developed with NVIDIA, just the latest milestone in the IBM AI roadmap.

Says Gupta, “PowerAI in my opinion is a huge step forward to democratizing AI and deep learning for the enterprise. That’s the real value here. We are making it much easier, more broadly, for the average enterprise to be able to deploy these deep learning frameworks for their use cases.”

IBM characterizes PowerAI as a hardware-software solution that “provides more than 2X performance over comparable servers with 4 GPUs running AlexNet with Caffe. The same 4-GPU Power-based configuration running Alexnet with BVLC Caffe can also outperform 8 M40 GPU-based x86 configurations, making it the world’s fastest commercially available enterprise systems platform on two versions of a key deep learning framework.”

Caffe, of course, is a widely used deep learning framework developed by Berkeley Vision and Learning Center (BVLC) and one of the most popular deep learning community applications. Caffe is one of five deep learning software frameworks available in the IBM PowerAI toolkit. The toolkit leverages GPUDL libraries including cuDNN, cuBLAS and NCCL as part of NVIDIA SDKs to deliver multi-GPU acceleration on IBM servers. IBM PowerAI is available now at no charge to customers of IBM’s Power S822LC for HPC server. PowerAI is designed to run on a single S822LC server and also to scale to large scale supercomputing clusters.


AI, of course, has two distinct elements, training the networks and deploying the solutions. “PowerAI is focused on the training of the computer model not the production. The training is where it’s compute intensive. Inference in many cases can be done on your cell phone or you mobile device. It’s pretty light. If we fast forward a few years inferencing will increasingly be done on the client side device or the edge device and less in the datacenter,” says Gupta.

IBM has engaged HPC cloud specialist Nimbix to offer both its high-end server and PowerAI. Gupta notes many young and start-up companies are interested in AI (in all of its guises) but have neither the technical nor financial resources to take the deep learning plunge.

Nimbix has built out a cluster of these IBM Power servers with the latest power8, NVLink, and P100 GPUs. The other aspect of this is they have used an InfiniBand as the connecting all these servers together so it is truly sort of an HPC cloud and they offer bare metal access to the servers. This is ideal for HPC and deep learning applications and this is right now,” he says.

More broadly IBM says traction has been steadily growing for its Power line of products. The hardware pairing for PowerAI, the IBM Power S822LC, was launched in early September and Gupta says demand has been robust.

Rack of IBM S822LC/HPC Servers
Rack of IBM S822LC/HPC Servers

Here’s a provided by IBM of client uses for the new IBM Power S822LC for HPC:

  • Human Brain Project – In support of the Human Brain Project, a research project funded by the European Commission to advance understanding of the human brain, IBM, NVIDIA and the Juelich Supercomputing Centre delivered a pilot system as part of the Pre-Commercial Procurement process. Called JURON, the new supercomputer leverages Power S822LC for HPC systems.
  • Cloud provider Nimbix – HPC cloud platform provider, Nimbix expanded its cloud supercomputing offeringsthis month, putting IBM Power S822LC for HPC systems in the hands of developers and data scientists to achieve unprecedented performance.
  • City of Yachay, Ecuador – Ecuador’s new “City of Knowledge,” Yachay, is a planned city in Ecuador designed to push the nation’s economy away from commodities and towards knowledge-based innovation. The city announced last week it is using a cluster of Power S822LC servers to build the country’s first supercomputer for the purpose of creating new forms of energy, predict climates, and be a pioneer in food genomics.
  • SC3 Electronics – A leading cloud supercomputing center in Turkey, announced the company is creating the largest HPC cluster in the Middle East and North Africa region based on Power S822LC for HPC servers.
  • Multinational retail corporation – One of the world’s largest retailers has built a cluster consisting of dozens of S822LC servers to maximize revenue through precision marketing and real-time inventory management.

Other evidence of Power’s traction is the porting of prominent HPC applications to Power8 CPU says Gupta (table below).

“Nine of the top ten applications are available now on power or coming soon including for example Ansys, Gaussian, GROMACS, and NAMD. This is a reflection of the fact that many of these applications used to be supported on Power several years ago. So reviving that was relatively easy for the application provider, but it is also a reflection of the fact that we see pretty good momentum in the market and some large deployment with the new power HPC servers,” he says.


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