HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

By Dairsie Latimer

October 10, 2017

No this isn’t about the song from Charlotte’s Web or the Scandinavian predilection for open sandwiches; it’s about the apparent newfound choice in the HPC CPU market.

For the first time since AMD’s ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, ‘Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?’ doesn’t have to be ‘Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure’.

In fact, it’s not just in the x86 market where there is now a genuine choice. Soon we will have at least two credible ARM v8 ISA CPUs (from Cavium and Qualcomm respectively) and IBM have gone all in on the Power architecture (having at one point in the last ten years had four competing HPC CPU lines – x86, Blue Gene, Power and Cell).

In fact, it may even be Intel that is left wondering which horse to back in the HPC CPU race with both Xeon lines looking insufficiently differentiated going forward. A symptom of this dilemma is the recent restructuring of the Xeon line along with associated pricing and feature segmentation.

I’m also quite deliberately avoiding the potentially disruptive appearance of a number of radically different computational solutions being honed for machine learning and which will inevitably have some bearing on HPC in the future.

Have we seen peak Intel?

Intel’s 90+ percent market share in the datacentre has for years worried many observers. While their products have undoubtedly been very good, when you have an effective monopoly, the evolutionary pressure that drives innovation and price competitiveness understandably wanes.

“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” – Andy Grove”

The re-emergence of credible competition can only be a good thing for the wider market, but in HPC things are less clear cut. Intel still holds a strong hand in the game of poker that is HPC procurement, namely AVX-512, but since some of the larger Top500 systems tend to be heterogeneous in nature, is this going to be enough to fend off the challenge from the following pack in other parts of the HPC ecosystem?

IBM and Nvidia are clearly hoping to make significant to make inroads at the top table of HPC with their CORAL generation systems, and Qualcomm and Cavium will also be hoping to chip away at Intel’s monopoly (though they are probably not directly aiming at HPC) but these non-x86 alternatives face significant problems when it comes to showing their capabilities in the HPC space.

AMD have a great opportunity to make gains in the HPC space with their EPYC line (the only x86 competitor) and early signs are encouraging that they will take the fight to Intel and not just on price-performance grounds.

Inertia in HPC is a funny thing

We mainly think of inertia as a property of physical objects but in the HPC industry there is a similar phenomenon relating to application code bases (and languages), instruction sets (and optimised software library ecosystems) and how hard it is to justify doing something different. In the case of HPC, this is really an argument about the barrier to entry for the new HPC CPU vendors, and what they have to be able to demonstrate in order to displace the incumbent (i.e. Intel).

Without trying to evade answering the question, we all hope that the non-Intel vendors can find the right combination of price-performance to chip away at the current Intel dominance in the datacentre. Not because we want to see Intel fail, but because we want them to succeed. Healthy competition is definitely good for users, though less obviously so for Intel’s shareholders.

If all you have is a hammer

“Ah-ha!” I hear you cry, “We already embrace different ISAs and heterogeneity in the Top500.” and indeed we do.  In fact the latest Green500 list is testament to how effective this approach can be. We also know that LINPACK is a historically poor predictor for most actual HPC application performance but we still use it as a flagship benchmark, predominantly because it does a good job of stress testing the computational elements of system architecture. With the march towards exascale now looking more like the retreat from Moscow, there is increasing need to improve the system efficiency for applications that don’t exhibit LINPACK-esque scaling characteristics. Machine learning looks to be the new yardstick so it will be interesting to see the rapid evolution of new solutions and benchmarks.

Moore’s Law in ICU

We should also acknowledge the increasing challenges facing silicon fabrication and process technology. Keeping the Moore’s Law show on the road is hard. This isn’t news to folk in HPC but it is one of the reasons why exascale in under 20MW (anything else looks prohibitively expensive) looks to be an exceedingly challenging goal in the next five years.

Intel are still at the vanguard when it comes to eking out the increasingly esoteric improvements needed, but when you have to re-state what aspects of process naming conventions should matter, you are already rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns.

Moore’s law is an engine that has historically driven significant growth across the board and enabled the in silico renaissance that most HPC users are engaged in, but it is faltering at just the moment that exascale computing systems need a significant uplift in system efficiency. There still need to be huge improvements in parallelism, memory and storage efficiency, and data transmission and that’s even before you start to consider the considerations around fault recovery and software complexity for such huge systems.

We’ve been fairly good at scrambling over the various ‘walls’ we’ve encountered in the last couple of decades but does anyone else have a feeling that we are at the cusp of a period of innovation in HPC that we haven’t seen for some time?

Benchmark, benchmark, benchmark

For the first time in at least five years, the need for comparative benchmarking, conducted as part of your pre- and tender process, is looking to be an absolutely essential step to deliver the best value. Rather than just being viewed as something that provides a little more confidence that the vendors have tuned the MPI implementation and fabric topology, and you know what compiler flags to flip, it will shine a light into some of the dark musty corners that more complacent software developers and vendors have chosen to ignore. If for no other reason it will ensure that the supported pricing you get from your suppliers will be as keen as it should be.

Dairsie Latimer is a Managing Consultant for Red Oak Consulting.

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!

Russian and American Scientists Achieve 50% Increase in Data Transmission Speed

September 20, 2018

As high-performance computing becomes increasingly data-intensive and the demand for shorter turnaround times grows, data transfer speed becomes an ever more important bottleneck. Now, in an article published in IEEE Tra Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

IBM to Brand Rescale’s HPC-in-Cloud Platform

September 20, 2018

HPC (or big compute)-in-the-cloud platform provider Rescale has formalized the work it’s been doing in partnership with public cloud vendors by announcing its Powered by Rescale program – with IBM as its first named Read more…

By Doug Black

Democratization of HPC Part 1: Simulation Sheds Light on Building Dispute

September 20, 2018

This is the first of three articles demonstrating the growing acceptance of High Performance Computing especially in new user communities and application areas. Major reasons for this trend are the ongoing improvements i Read more…

By Wolfgang Gentzsch

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Introducing the First Integrated System Management Software for HPC Clusters from HPE

How do you manage your complex, growing cluster environments? Answer that big challenge with the new HPC cluster management solution: HPE Performance Cluster Manager. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Clouds Over the Ocean – a Healthcare Perspective

Advances in precision medicine, genomics, and imaging; the widespread adoption of electronic health records; and the proliferation of medical Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile devices are resulting in an explosion of structured and unstructured healthcare-related data. Read more…

Summit Supercomputer is Already Making its Mark on Science

September 20, 2018

Summit, now the fastest supercomputer in the world, is quickly making its mark in science – five of the six finalists just announced for the prestigious 2018 Gordon Bell Prize used Summit in their work. That’s impres Read more…

By John Russell

Summit Supercomputer is Already Making its Mark on Science

September 20, 2018

Summit, now the fastest supercomputer in the world, is quickly making its mark in science – five of the six finalists just announced for the prestigious 2018 Read more…

By John Russell

House Passes $1.275B National Quantum Initiative

September 17, 2018

Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) intended to accelerate quantum computing research and developm Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Accelerates AI Inference in the Datacenter with T4 GPU

September 14, 2018

Nvidia is upping its game for AI inference in the datacenter with a new platform consisting of an inference accelerator chip--the new Turing-based Tesla T4 GPU- Read more…

By George Leopold

DeepSense Combines HPC and AI to Bolster Canada’s Ocean Economy

September 13, 2018

We often hear scientists say that we know less than 10 percent of the life of the oceans. This week, IBM and a group of Canadian industry and government partner Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Rigetti (and Others) Pursuit of Quantum Advantage

September 11, 2018

Remember ‘quantum supremacy’, the much-touted but little-loved idea that the age of quantum computing would be signaled when quantum computers could tackle Read more…

By John Russell

How FPGAs Accelerate Financial Services Workloads

September 11, 2018

While FSI companies are unlikely, for competitive reasons, to disclose their FPGA strategies, James Reinders offers insights into the case for FPGAs as accelerators for FSI by discussing performance, power, size, latency, jitter and inline processing. Read more…

By James Reinders

Update from Gregory Kurtzer on Singularity’s Push into FS and the Enterprise

September 11, 2018

Container technology is hardly new but it has undergone rapid evolution in the HPC space in recent years to accommodate traditional science workloads and HPC systems requirements. While Docker containers continue to dominate in the enterprise, other variants are becoming important and one alternative with distinctly HPC roots – Singularity – is making an enterprise push targeting advanced scale workload inclusive of HPC. Read more…

By John Russell

At HPC on Wall Street: AI-as-a-Service Accelerates AI Journeys

September 10, 2018

AIaaS – artificial intelligence-as-a-service – is the technology discipline that eases enterprise entry into the mysteries of the AI journey while lowering Read more…

By Doug Black

TACC Wins Next NSF-funded Major Supercomputer

July 30, 2018

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has won the next NSF-funded big supercomputer beating out rivals including the National Center for Supercomputing Ap Read more…

By John Russell

IBM at Hot Chips: What’s Next for Power

August 23, 2018

With processor, memory and networking technologies all racing to fill in for an ailing Moore’s law, the era of the heterogeneous datacenter is well underway, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Requiem for a Phi: Knights Landing Discontinued

July 25, 2018

On Monday, Intel made public its end of life strategy for the Knights Landing "KNL" Phi product set. The announcement makes official what has already been wide Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CERN Project Sees Orders-of-Magnitude Speedup with AI Approach

August 14, 2018

An award-winning effort at CERN has demonstrated potential to significantly change how the physics based modeling and simulation communities view machine learni Read more…

By Rob Farber

ORNL Summit Supercomputer Is Officially Here

June 8, 2018

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) together with IBM and Nvidia celebrated the official unveiling of the Department of Energy (DOE) Summit supercomputer toda Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Deep Learning Algorithm Solves Rubik’s Cube

July 25, 2018

Solving (and attempting to solve) Rubik’s Cube has delighted millions of puzzle lovers since 1974 when the cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor and archite Read more…

By John Russell

AMD’s EPYC Road to Redemption in Six Slides

June 21, 2018

A year ago AMD returned to the server market with its EPYC processor line. The earth didn’t tremble but folks took notice. People remember the Opteron fondly Read more…

By John Russell

Sandia to Take Delivery of World’s Largest Arm System

June 18, 2018

While the enterprise remains circumspect on prospects for Arm servers in the datacenter, the leadership HPC community is taking a bolder, brighter view of the x86 server CPU alternative. Amongst current and planned Arm HPC installations – i.e., the innovative Mont-Blanc project, led by Bull/Atos, the 'Isambard’ Cray XC50 going into the University of Bristol, and commitments from both Japan and France among others -- HPE is announcing that it will be supply the United States National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with a 2.3 petaflops peak Arm-based system, named Astra. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

SC17 Booth Video Tours Playlist

Altair @ SC17


AMD @ SC17


ASRock Rack @ SC17

ASRock Rack



DDN Storage @ SC17

DDN Storage

Huawei @ SC17


IBM @ SC17


IBM Power Systems @ SC17

IBM Power Systems

Intel @ SC17


Lenovo @ SC17


Mellanox Technologies @ SC17

Mellanox Technologies

Microsoft @ SC17


Penguin Computing @ SC17

Penguin Computing

Pure Storage @ SC17

Pure Storage

Supericro @ SC17


Tyan @ SC17


Univa @ SC17


MLPerf – Will New Machine Learning Benchmark Help Propel AI Forward?

May 2, 2018

Let the AI benchmarking wars begin. Today, a diverse group from academia and industry – Google, Baidu, Intel, AMD, Harvard, and Stanford among them – releas Read more…

By John Russell

House Passes $1.275B National Quantum Initiative

September 17, 2018

Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) intended to accelerate quantum computing research and developm Read more…

By John Russell

D-Wave Breaks New Ground in Quantum Simulation

July 16, 2018

Last Friday D-Wave scientists and colleagues published work in Science which they say represents the first fulfillment of Richard Feynman’s 1982 notion that Read more…

By John Russell

Intel Pledges First Commercial Nervana Product ‘Spring Crest’ in 2019

May 24, 2018

At its AI developer conference in San Francisco yesterday, Intel embraced a holistic approach to AI and showed off a broad AI portfolio that includes Xeon processors, Movidius technologies, FPGAs and Intel’s Nervana Neural Network Processors (NNPs), based on the technology it acquired in 2016. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Announces Cooper Lake, Advances AI Strategy

August 9, 2018

Intel's chief datacenter exec Navin Shenoy kicked off the company's Data-Centric Innovation Summit Wednesday, the day-long program devoted to Intel's datacenter Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

TACC’s ‘Frontera’ Supercomputer Expands Horizon for Extreme-Scale Science

August 29, 2018

The National Science Foundation and the Texas Advanced Computing Center announced today that a new system, called Frontera, will overtake Stampede 2 as the fast Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

GPUs Power Five of World’s Top Seven Supercomputers

June 25, 2018

The top 10 echelon of the newly minted Top500 list boasts three powerful new systems with one common engine: the Nvidia Volta V100 general-purpose graphics proc Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

The Machine Learning Hype Cycle and HPC

June 14, 2018

Like many other HPC professionals I’m following the hype cycle around machine learning/deep learning with interest. I subscribe to the view that we’re probably approaching the ‘peak of inflated expectation’ but not quite yet starting the descent into the ‘trough of disillusionment. This still raises the probability that... Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

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