High end HPC: why bother?

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In Friday’s HPCwire editor Michael Feldman considers why hardware companies bother with high end HPC.

But why would anyone want to chase the high end of the supercomputing market anyway? Analysts and vendors both agree that the market is small, essentially stagnant, and is dependent on the buying behavior of a limited set of customers — mostly government organizations. With the exception of Cray, companies that have focused exclusively on this market sector have either failed or were bought out. Cray itself has been swallowed and regurgitated a number of times.

He asks the question in the context of his HPC discussion with Ed Turkel, manager of HP’s Product and Technology Group for the HPC Division. In the interview Turkel reveals that HP, which dominates the Top500 list but doesn’t have a single entry in the top 50, is deploying at 184 TFLOPS system later this year.

The answer Turkel gives? Much the same as Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz gave on his blog earlier this month

Turkel said that HP’s interest in the high end of the supercomputing market is driven by the company’s strategy of using HPC as a technology incubator. The hope is that the kind of research that brought the world clusters may also come up with something else as widely applicable to the larger IT community. Potentially, that’s worth a lot.

Feldman points out some good examples of things actually working the other way, though

A lot of mainstream computing technology feeds back into supercomputing. And that tends to be the more typical direction of technology flow. Linux, x86 processors and Ethernet are all commodity technologies that were adopted by HPC. Even InfiniBand, which is now making its way from HPC into the enterprise, was originally developed as a general-purpose interconnect. FPGAs and GPUs may be the next examples of commodity technology that moves up the food chain.

He ultimately concludes that maybe the quest at the high end is more about individual leadership than sound technological or economic reasoning

So why do these companies find the need to play at the far edge of the supercomputing market? Maybe for the same reason people climb Everest — because it’s there.