SC17 Preview – Back to the Future!

By Dairsie Latimer

October 24, 2017

I’m really looking forward to returning to Denver this year and I’ll admit that I have a real soft spot for Blue Bear. As a regular SC attendee (and at times exhibitor) over the last twelve years or more (ok my memory that far back is a little hazy) my interest levels, and perhaps my cynicism levels are starting to build as I write this. Key areas of interest are discussed with colleagues; meeting arrangements are starting to be firmed up and promises to catch up with old friends made. All the usual build up for our industry’s headline event.

So what will the unofficial theme be at SC17?

Well there’s the Top500 list of course. While Summit and Sierra, two of the US exascale pathfinder systems (part of the CORAL initiative) are being installed they probably won’t make a showing this November. China will look to pack out the Top 5 with more home-grown technology with the upgraded Tianhe-2A (and probably hoping to be the first past the sustained 100 PF post). The Chinese exascale programme is taking shape, but like everyone else’s there are real challenges involved in delivering effective systems which don’t require a new coal fired power station to be built next door.

We may find out a little more about what the recast Aurora programme at Argonne will look like (though I doubt how much will be spoken about it, even behind closed doors) but the delayed gestation shows that there are real question marks about what this new incarnation will actually look like when (and if) it arrives in 2021.

I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about ARM and HPC this year. Hopefully we will even see real live tin running on the exhibition floor with CPUs from Cavium and Qualcomm, especially after some of the noise generated at ISC17 earlier in the year. It may be a bit early to hear from production users at the ARM user group session this SC but the time is finally approaching.

There seems to be a bit more noise about quantum computing this year, with Intel now getting in on the act, but while the strategic potential for certain verticals is there, I think we’re still early on in the technology adoption curve that most new innovations follow, so for now it’s still hype over practical substance. If someone can show me a widely adoptable programming model for quantum computing I’ll listen with interest.

SC17 also looks like it will be the show where architectures aimed squarely at machine learning come to the show floor. NVIDIA has been blazing a trail for the ML and DL for a while now (with Google and Microsoft also getting in on the act) but the recent public announcement from Intel of their Nervana Neural Network Processor (NNP) and Graphcore’s Intelligence Processing Unit (IPU) architecture we will see some of the other early players squaring off. It remains to be seen how their unique approaches to solving problems in the ML space will work in practice, but this has all the makings of a humdinger of a cage fight.

There’s another thread running through our world these days and it is the at least ideological convergence of HPC and big data (and to that you can add visualisation). Perhaps it’s always been there, but now are we seeing a deliberate convergence of hardware and software platforms for HPC and big data? Is this due to financial necessity or simply because there are real synergies to be found? Do we even have the right tools for the job? I hope to find some answers to this question at SC17 – vendors you have been warned.

Personally I think the theme for SC17 is going to be the re-emergence of notable technological innovation in the HPC space. It feels a little like the Cambrian explosion, where every technological niche is about to undergo an intense period of competition and once the evolutionary dust has settled again we will go back to a period of relative stability. The question for users will be how to cope with significant architectural changes which will affect code structure while still sustaining code maintainability and extracting significant benefits from the new technologies? Oh did I mention that’s part of the theme of one of the panels at SC this year?

As usual there’s lots going on and at SC17 and Red Oak (@redoakHPC) are busier than ever before helping delivering three half day tutorials over the course of two days as well as organising a panel on software sustainability. Check out our website and blog for more details.

I look forward to seeing you there!

About the Author

Dairsie has a somewhat eclectic background, having worked in a variety of roles on supplier side and client side across the commercial and public sectors as a consultant and software engineer. Following an early career in computer graphics, micro-architecture design and full stack software development; he has over twelve years’ specialist experience in the HPC sector, ranging from developing low-level libraries and software for novel computing architectures to porting complex HPC applications to a range of accelerators. He also advises clients on strategy, technology futures, HPC procurements and managing challenging technical projects.

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