HPC Iron, Soft, Data, People – It Takes an Ecosystem!

By Alex R. Larzelere

December 11, 2017

Cutting edge advanced computing hardware (aka big iron) does not stand by itself. These computers are the pinnacle of a myriad of technologies that must be carefully woven together by people to create the computational capabilities that are used to deliver insights into the behaviors of complex systems. This collection of technologies and people has been called the High Performance Computing (HPC) ecosystem. This is an appropriate metaphor because it evokes the complicated nature of the interdependent elements needed to deliver first of a kind computing systems.

The idea of the HPC ecosystem has been around for years and most recently appeared in one of the objectives for the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI). The 4th objective calls for “Increasing the capacity and capability of an enduring national HPC ecosystem.” This leads to the questions of, “what makes up the HPC ecosystem” and why is it so important? Perhaps the more important question is, why does the United States need to be careful about letting its HPC ecosystem diminish?

The heart of the HPC ecosystem is clearly the “big humming boxes” that contain the advanced computing hardware. The rows upon rows of cabinets are the focal point of the electronic components, operating software, and application programs that provide the capabilities that produce the results used to create new scientific and engineering insights that are the real purpose of the HPC ecosystem. However, it is misleading to think that any one computer at any one time is sufficient to make up an ecosystem. Rather, the HPC ecosystem requires a continuous pipeline of computer hardware and software. It is that continuous flow of developing technologies that keeps HPC progressing on the cutting edge.

The hardware element of the pipeline includes systems and components that are under development, but are not currently available. This includes the basic research that will create the scientific discoveries that enable new approaches to computer designs. The ongoing demand for “cutting edge” systems is important to keep system and component designers pushing the performance envelope. The pipeline also includes the currently installed highest performance systems. These are the systems that are being tested and optimized. Every time a system like this is installed, technology surprises are found that must be identified and accommodated. The hardware pipeline also includes systems on the trailing edge. At this point, the computer hardware is quite stable and allows a focus on developing and optimizing modeling and simulation applications.

One of the greatest challenges of maintaining the HPC ecosystem is recognizing that there are significant financial commitments needed to keep the pipeline filled. There are many examples of organizations that believed that buying a single big computer would make them part of the ecosystem. In those cases, they were right, but only temporarily. Being part of the HPC ecosystem requires being committed to buying the next cutting-edge system based on the lessons learned from the last system.

Another critical element of the HPC ecosystem is software. This generally falls into two categories – software needed to operate the computer (also called middleware or the “stack”) and software that provides insights into end user questions (called applications). Middleware plays the critical role of managing the operations of the hardware systems and enabling the execution of applications software. Middleware includes computer operating systems, file systems and network controllers. This type of software also includes compilers that translate application programs into the machine language that will be executed on hardware. There are quite a number of other pieces of middleware software that include libraries of commonly needed functions, programming tools, performance monitors, and debuggers.

Applications software span a wide range and are as varied as the problems users want to address through computation. Some applications are quick “throwaway” (prototype) attempts to explore potential ways in which computers may be used to address a problem. Other applications software is written, sometimes with different solution methods, to simulate physical behaviors of complex systems. This software will sometimes last for decades and will be progressively improved. An important aspect of these types of applications is the experimental validation data that provide confidence that the results can be trusted. For this type of applications software, setting up the problem that can include finite element mesh generation, populating that mesh with material properties and launching the execution are important parts of the ecosystem. Other elements of usability of application software include the computers, software, and displays that allow users to visualize and explore simulation results.

Data is yet another essential element of the HPC ecosystem. Data is the lifeblood in the circulatory system that flows through the system to keep it doing useful things. The HPC ecosystem includes systems that hold and move data from one element to another. Hardware aspects of the data system include memory, storage devices, and networking. Also software device drivers and file systems are needed to keep track of the data. With the growing trend to add machine learning and artificial intelligence to the HPC ecosystem, its ability to process and productively use data are becoming increasingly significant.

Finally, and most importantly, trained and highly skilled people are an essential part of the HPC ecosystem. Just like computing systems, these people make up a “pipeline” that starts in elementary school and continues through undergraduate and then advanced degrees. Attracting and educating these people in computing technologies is critical. Another important part of the people pipeline of the HPC ecosystem are the jobs offered by academia, national labs, government, and industry. These professional experiences provide the opportunities needed to practice and hone HPC skills.

The origins of the United States’ HPC ecosystem dates back to the decision by the U.S. Army Research Lab to procure an electronic computer to calculate ballistic tables for its artillery during World War II (i.e. ENIAC). That event led to finding and training the people, who in many cases were women, to program and operate the computer. The ENIAC was just the start of the nation’s significant investment in hardware, middleware software, and applications. However, just because the United States was the first does not mean that it was alone. Europe and Japan also have robust HPC ecosystems for years and most recently China has determinedly set out to create one of their own.

The United States and other countries made the necessary investments in their HPC ecosystems because they understood the strategic advantages that staying at the cutting edge of computing provides. These well-document advantages apply to many areas that include: national security, discovery science, economic competitiveness, energy security and curing diseases.

The challenge of maintaining the HPC ecosystem is that, just like a natural ecosystem, the HPC version can be threatened by becoming too narrow and lacking diversity. This applies to the hardware, middleware, and applications software. Betting on just a few types of technologies can be disastrous if one approach fails. Diversity also means having and using a healthy range of systems that covers the highest performance cutting edge systems to wide deployment of mid and low-end production systems. Another aspect of diversity is the range of applications that can productively use on advanced computing resources.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to an ecosystem is complacency and assuming that it, and the necessary people, will always be there. This can take the form of an attitude that it is good enough to become a HPC technology follower and acceptable to purchase HPC systems and services from other nations. Once a HPC ecosystem has been lost, it is not clear if it can be regained. Having a robust HPC ecosystem can last for decades, through many “half lives” of hardware. A healthy ecosystem allows puts countries in a leadership position and this means the ability to influence HPC technologies in ways that best serve their strategic goals. Happily, the 4th NSCI objective signals that the United States understands these challenges and the importance of maintaining a healthy HPC ecosystem.

About the Author

Alex Larzelere is a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, the president of Larzelere & Associates Consulting and HPCwire’s policy editor. He is currently a technologist, speaker and author on a number of disruptive technologies that include: advanced modeling and simulation; high performance computing; artificial intelligence; the Internet of Things; and additive manufacturing. Alex’s career has included time in federal service (working closely with DOE national labs), private industry, and as founder of a small business. Throughout that time, he led programs that implemented the use of cutting edge advanced computing technologies to enable high resolution, multi-physics simulations of complex physical systems. Alex is the author of “Delivering Insight: The History of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI).”

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!

Q&A with Google’s Bill Magro, an HPCwire Person to Watch in 2021

June 11, 2021

Last Fall Bill Magro joined Google as CTO of HPC, a newly created position, after two decades at Intel, where he was responsible for the company's HPC strategy. This interview was conducted by email at the beginning of A Read more…

A Carbon Crisis Looms Over Supercomputing. How Do We Stop It?

June 11, 2021

Supercomputing is extraordinarily power-hungry, with many of the top systems measuring their peak demand in the megawatts due to powerful processors and their correspondingly powerful cooling systems. As a result, these Read more…

Honeywell Quantum and Cambridge Quantum Plan to Merge; More to Follow?

June 10, 2021

Earlier this week, Honeywell announced plans to merge its quantum computing business, Honeywell Quantum Solutions (HQS), which focuses on trapped ion hardware, with the U.K.-based Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC), which Read more…

ISC21 Keynoter Xiaoxiang Zhu to Deliver a Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World

June 10, 2021

ISC High Performance 2021 – once again virtual due to the ongoing pandemic – is swiftly approaching. In contrast to last year’s conference, which canceled its in-person component with a couple months’ notice, ISC Read more…

Xilinx Expands Versal Chip Family With 7 New Versal AI Edge Chips

June 10, 2021

FPGA chip vendor Xilinx has been busy over the last several years cranking out its Versal AI Core, Versal Premium and Versal Prime chip families to fill customer compute needs in the cloud, datacenters, networks and more. Now Xilinx is expanding its reach to the booming edge... Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Building highly-available HPC infrastructure on AWS

Reminder: You can learn a lot from AWS HPC engineers by subscribing to the HPC Tech Short YouTube channel, and following the AWS HPC Blog channel. Read more…

Space Weather Prediction Gets a Supercomputing Boost

June 9, 2021

Solar winds are a hot topic in the HPC world right now, with supercomputer-powered research spanning from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (which used Oak Ridge’s Titan system) to University College London (which used resources from the DiRAC HPC facility). One of the larger... Read more…

A Carbon Crisis Looms Over Supercomputing. How Do We Stop It?

June 11, 2021

Supercomputing is extraordinarily power-hungry, with many of the top systems measuring their peak demand in the megawatts due to powerful processors and their c Read more…

Honeywell Quantum and Cambridge Quantum Plan to Merge; More to Follow?

June 10, 2021

Earlier this week, Honeywell announced plans to merge its quantum computing business, Honeywell Quantum Solutions (HQS), which focuses on trapped ion hardware, Read more…

ISC21 Keynoter Xiaoxiang Zhu to Deliver a Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World

June 10, 2021

ISC High Performance 2021 – once again virtual due to the ongoing pandemic – is swiftly approaching. In contrast to last year’s conference, which canceled Read more…

Xilinx Expands Versal Chip Family With 7 New Versal AI Edge Chips

June 10, 2021

FPGA chip vendor Xilinx has been busy over the last several years cranking out its Versal AI Core, Versal Premium and Versal Prime chip families to fill customer compute needs in the cloud, datacenters, networks and more. Now Xilinx is expanding its reach to the booming edge... Read more…

What is Thermodynamic Computing and Could It Become Important?

June 3, 2021

What, exactly, is thermodynamic computing? (Yes, we know everything obeys thermodynamic laws.) A trio of researchers from Microsoft, UC San Diego, and Georgia Tech have written an interesting viewpoint in the June issue... Read more…

AMD Introduces 3D Chiplets, Demos Vertical Cache on Zen 3 CPUs

June 2, 2021

At Computex 2021, held virtually this week, AMD showcased a new 3D chiplet architecture that will be used for future high-performance computing products set to Read more…

Nvidia Expands Its Certified Server Models, Unveils DGX SuperPod Subscriptions

June 2, 2021

Nvidia is busy this week at the virtual Computex 2021 Taipei technology show, announcing an expansion of its nascent Nvidia-certified server program, a range of Read more…

Using HPC Cloud, Researchers Investigate the COVID-19 Lab Leak Hypothesis

May 27, 2021

At the end of 2019, strange pneumonia cases started cropping up in Wuhan, China. As Wuhan (then China, then the world) scrambled to contain what would, of cours Read more…

AMD Chipmaker TSMC to Use AMD Chips for Chipmaking

May 8, 2021

TSMC has tapped AMD to support its major manufacturing and R&D workloads. AMD will provide its Epyc Rome 7702P CPUs – with 64 cores operating at a base cl Read more…

Intel Launches 10nm ‘Ice Lake’ Datacenter CPU with Up to 40 Cores

April 6, 2021

The wait is over. Today Intel officially launched its 10nm datacenter CPU, the third-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processor, codenamed Ice Lake. With up to 40 Read more…

Berkeley Lab Debuts Perlmutter, World’s Fastest AI Supercomputer

May 27, 2021

A ribbon-cutting ceremony held virtually at Berkeley Lab's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) today marked the official launch of Perlmutter – aka NERSC-9 – the GPU-accelerated supercomputer built by HPE in partnership with Nvidia and AMD. Read more…

CERN Is Betting Big on Exascale

April 1, 2021

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) involves 23 countries, 15,000 researchers, billions of dollars a year, and the biggest machine in the worl Read more…

Google Launches TPU v4 AI Chips

May 20, 2021

Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke for only one minute and 42 seconds about the company’s latest TPU v4 Tensor Processing Units during his keynote at the Google I Read more…

Iran Gains HPC Capabilities with Launch of ‘Simorgh’ Supercomputer

May 18, 2021

Iran is said to be developing domestic supercomputing technology to advance the processing of scientific, economic, political and military data, and to strengthen the nation’s position in the age of AI and big data. On Sunday, Iran unveiled the Simorgh supercomputer, which will deliver.... Read more…

HPE Launches Storage Line Loaded with IBM’s Spectrum Scale File System

April 6, 2021

HPE today launched a new family of storage solutions bundled with IBM’s Spectrum Scale Erasure Code Edition parallel file system (description below) and featu Read more…

Quantum Computer Start-up IonQ Plans IPO via SPAC

March 8, 2021

IonQ, a Maryland-based quantum computing start-up working with ion trap technology, plans to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) merger a Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

Julia Update: Adoption Keeps Climbing; Is It a Python Challenger?

January 13, 2021

The rapid adoption of Julia, the open source, high level programing language with roots at MIT, shows no sign of slowing according to data from Julialang.org. I Read more…

AMD Launches Epyc ‘Milan’ with 19 SKUs for HPC, Enterprise and Hyperscale

March 15, 2021

At a virtual launch event held today (Monday), AMD revealed its third-generation Epyc “Milan” CPU lineup: a set of 19 SKUs -- including the flagship 64-core, 280-watt 7763 part --  aimed at HPC, enterprise and cloud workloads. Notably, the third-gen Epyc Milan chips achieve 19 percent... Read more…

Can Deep Learning Replace Numerical Weather Prediction?

March 3, 2021

Numerical weather prediction (NWP) is a mainstay of supercomputing. Some of the first applications of the first supercomputers dealt with climate modeling, and Read more…

Livermore’s El Capitan Supercomputer to Debut HPE ‘Rabbit’ Near Node Local Storage

February 18, 2021

A near node local storage innovation called Rabbit factored heavily into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s decision to select Cray’s proposal for its CORAL-2 machine, the lab’s first exascale-class supercomputer, El Capitan. Details of this new storage technology were revealed... Read more…

GTC21: Nvidia Launches cuQuantum; Dips a Toe in Quantum Computing

April 13, 2021

Yesterday Nvidia officially dipped a toe into quantum computing with the launch of cuQuantum SDK, a development platform for simulating quantum circuits on GPU-accelerated systems. As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang emphasized in his keynote, Nvidia doesn’t plan to build... Read more…

Microsoft to Provide World’s Most Powerful Weather & Climate Supercomputer for UK’s Met Office

April 22, 2021

More than 14 months ago, the UK government announced plans to invest £1.2 billion ($1.56 billion) into weather and climate supercomputing, including procuremen Read more…

African Supercomputing Center Inaugurates ‘Toubkal,’ Most Powerful Supercomputer on the Continent

February 25, 2021

Historically, Africa hasn’t exactly been synonymous with supercomputing. There are only a handful of supercomputers on the continent, with few ranking on the Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire