Wallach's multiple HPC personalities

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I mentioned last week that Convey Computer, the HPC startup founded by Steve Wallach and others, was de-cloaking at SC this week. Well, shields down. The technology looks very interesting. From coverage at HPCwire

In a nutshell, the company has developed a “hybrid core” server, the HC-1, which wraps FPGAs into a reconfigurable coprocessor that runs alongside a standard multicore x86 CPU. The CPU and coprocessor can be programmed with standard C/C++ and Fortran. Essentially, you can take legacy code, run it through the Convey compiler, and out pops an executable that runs an order of magnitude faster on a Convey box than it would on an x86 system.

How does it work? It’s all about your code’s personality, and reconfiguring the machine’s FPGA co-processors, to help your code along

The way the coprocessor is reconfigured for different applications is by loading the FPGAs with a “personality,” which describe an instruction set that has been optimized for a specific workload. For example, there could be different personalities for bioinformatics, CFD, financial analytics, and seismic processing.

…At compile-time, the developer selects a command-line switch to specify the appropriate personality for the application source. Based on the switch, the compiler extracts the parallelism from the source code by generating the personality’s extended instructions intermixed with x86 instructions, as appropriate. Prior to execution, the OS configures the FPGAs by loading the personality image corresponding to the extended instruction set.

The architecture also has features designed to overcome the traditional hurdles FPGA users have faced getting data to and from the arrays for processing. But the real magic is in what Convey (yes, Convex +1) is attempting to do in ease of use

“Our view is that you should be able to program in standard Fortran, C and C++,” says Wallach. So no extra language keywords, extensions, or special APIs are required to extract the extra performance from the FPGA-based coprocessor. According to Wallach, “you should put the burden on the compiler to do all the heavy lifting.”

Michael’s entire article is interesting and a recommended read. You can also read about Convey in John Markoff’s article in the NY Times from Sunday in case you are interested in an oustide baseball view. It focuses a bit more on Steve’s own personality and the man behind the technology

“I would say, ‘No, no, no, they’re clueless,’ ” he said. “I find it difficult to think of myself as the old man of the industry, but it feels the same as it was in the early 1980s.”

What can I say? I’m a sucker for cranky smart people with something to say.


  1. […] plan for all of this to work. By now, you’ve probably seen the various stories (for example, here) that were published when Convey de-cloaked last November, but very few people have taken a peek […]