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Are GPUs the next wave in HPC?

AMD’s recent purchase of ATI was accompanied by an announcement that AMD will introduce “Fusion,” a combination CPU and GPU intended for general-purpose computing. This is on the heals of the work from PeakStream and RapidMind in the arena of stream programming, which attempts make software development on GPUs easier for non-graphics applications. It certainly appears that GPUs are leading the wave in vector processing, which is of course complimentary to multi-core architectures.

For a while it looked like FPGAs would be the major source of hardware acceleration. Indeed, AMD’s Torrenza initiative is very attractive to vendors like DRC, whose solutions permit Xilinix chips to communicate with the CPU via HyperTransport. However, programming here is different because designers must use a hardware-description language rather than merely port their existing applications. Such a constraint will put off a large number of potential customers. I believe that FPGAs will be relegated to hardware creators who want to test their designs; I do not see FPGAs as the future of HPC.

The Cell BE is another competitor in the accelerator space. IBM is using its own chip as a co-processor for the Roadrunner computer. Mercury, which makes a Cell-based 1U, has the MultiCore Plus SDK for programming these processors. I believe the Cell’s adoption in non-IBM systems (aside from gaming, etc) will be about as wide-spread as Itanium’s.

The only competitor left in this space is ClearSpeed. The Advance requires significantly less energy that vanilla GPUs and is a true vector processor (unlike SSE, etc). My only reservation here is that Advance is being produced by a start-up.

As much as I’d prefer to see someone like ClearSpeed succeed over GPU-based general-purpose computing, I’ve seen enough in this industry to understand commoditization, volume, and market penetration. I believe a more likely scenario is that CPU + GPU will indeed become standard in blade-based clusters aimed at technical computing applications. Perhaps Advance will have its own niche, but even Quadrics and Myricom are introducing Ethernet-based high-performance networks as part of their survival strategy. Maybe Advance can target Torrenza and Geneseo.

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