There are a few high-profile efforts in the community to build extreme scale supers out of low power processing platforms: the one that usually springs to mind is the Berkeley Green Flash project, which is working with Tensilica to create an extreme scale computer designed especially for climate simulation.
Tensilica makes configurable microprocessor cores that customers in markets from cell phones to printers and networking equipment use to make their stuff go. Another clear possibility for building low power computers at an extreme scale is the ARM processor, something I hadn’t given much thought to until it came up several times in coffee conversations with smart HPC people during SC09.
So I point you to Stacey Higginbotham’s article over at GigaOm on technology startup Smooth-Stone.
Intel, with its x86 architecture, has owned the corporate computing market for decades, but Barry Evans, CEO of Austin, Texas-based systems startup Smooth-Stone, thinks it’s time for a change. Smooth-Stone, which Evans co-founded in 2008, is using ARM-based processors to create a box for the data center. Its goal isn’t a slight reduction in power efficiency, he said, but to “completely remove power as an issue in the data center.”
According to the article Smooth-Stone staffers hail from Intel, Newisys, and HPC startup Convey Convex (even more interesting, eh?).
However it’s not enough to swap out x86 chips for those based on ARM and expect the new systems to work. For one thing, it takes a lot of low-power processors to equal the performance of a single multicore Nehalem chip. An even bigger challenge is getting all of the cores to work together efficiently, a problem that another low-power systems company, SeaMicro, likely is solving as well with a box that contains 512 Atom chips. When I asked Evans if Smooth-Stone had built a custom chip to handle the networking and coordination of the ARM-based chips, he said, “Our IP goes all the way down to the silicon level.”
And then there is the software challenge, which Stacey also addresses.
If there is a long way to go to get an ARM-based server to a point of real utility for the enterprise, there is even more distance to cover to create a useful HPC platform out of one. But it is certainly an intriguing idea, and if Smooth-Stone can build some market adoption the HPC community may be able to leverage that to lower the cost of its own experiments
“Think of the install base of servers and all of the new servers coming online and how most approaches today save 10 or 20 percent on power,” Evans says. “Now imagine saving 99 percent on power and how completely that changes things and takes power out of the equation.”