Guest Feature: A Look Back at ISC'11 by John Hengeveld

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In this special guest feature, Intel’s John Hengeveld follows up on his recent preview of ISC’11 with some reflections on one of the biggest weeks in HPC.

Well, ISC is over. I renewed some friendships, made some new friends, and even found a really good tapas restaurant. For me, ISC was fascinating. The industry, much like my colleagues Marianne Jackson Elana Lian (Marketing Managers at Intel) and Dr. Marie-Christine Sawley (Director of Intel Paris Exascale Lab), is taking on some very big things as you can see in this photo.

Big Things in Hamburg. Photo Credit: Mark Spargo, used by permission of Mark and all visible people.

There were relatively few big surprises (RIKEN, Intel’s Exascale declaration), and some things I expected (relatively little movement in the top10). There was a lot of discussion of HPC in the Cloud and the middle of the HPC market. There was more turnover in the top500 list than I expected; mostly from the middle sized systems. I view this as an extremely healthy sign for the industry. While the top10 of the list had relatively little movement (probably due to the focus on systems for the November list), AMD’s interlagos isn’t out, nor is Intel’s Sandy Bridge. However, Intel did have a demo on sandy bridge in its public booth. There was a great deal in this show on the role of storage. Xyratex made some news here, as did a few others.

But I looked for four things this year, and promised to provide my assessment of them. Hopefully others will look at the same things and reply as well.

1) It’s the Workload Stupid: How are architectural innovators performing and how is their innovation accepted to serve the distinct classes of workloads? Do Major OEMs continue to deliver new design points that target distinct HPC workloads?

We saw a few major shifts in architectural approach at this ISC. I saw some notable fat node clusters demonstrated by Bull and SGI. SGI’s Dr. Eng Lim Goh gave a talk about how architectural innovation will be required to get to exascale, and his products continue to demonstrate his different brand of thinking. HP continues to have a wide range of solutions (blade and rack, hybrid CPU/GPU et al). Intel’s new Xeon e7 processor made its first appearance on this top500 list. There were technology demonstrations galore, but it seems like there weren’t any radical shifts threatened here on the scale that we have seen in the past couple of years.

On the software side, Microsoft was notably absent. Last year at ISC, they were all over the Windows server for HPC. This seemed a lot less advocated. After several years of engagement and growth, what is happening here? It’s hard to figure out.

2) Alternate Architecture Acceptance: How have attached coprocessors like Intel’s MIC products, Nvidia and ATI GPGPU been accepted as tools for delivering performance that leads up to an exascale era?

The top500 showed a somewhat slow increase in accelerators on the list (17 to 19), most of that coming from Nvidia going from 9 to 12 systems after much larger jumps in prior listings. Nvidia’s presence was relatively muted compared to prior shows. Intel demonstrated quite a few examples of customers using its new MIC architecture development platform.

3) Will HPC get its head into the clouds?

There was a lot of discussion of HPC in the Cloud. With great interest, I listened to a panel discussion that included my friend Christian Tanasescu from SGI. The panel enumerated considerable barriers to HPC in the Cloud. Christian articulated his view on the importance of rethinking the business model for software in HPC if we are to get anywhere in the cloud, and I think he’s right. He said shifting from annual licenses to on-demand is a risky step… I think it’s one we must take on at some point – maybe not now, but soon.

On Sunday, I presented a vision and a set of requirements that addressed the middle market of HPC, with the goal of stimulating conversation and a movement towards solutions. I feel the distinction between Cloud technology and HPC in the Cloud requirements is one abstraction of distinction versus expression of differentiation. My colleague Dr. Wheat refers to a group of customers called “the missing middle” as those who underutilize HPC. I described that a key segment of those customers are the people who do technical computing based on workstation platforms, but have economic, social, and skill barriers to utilize more rich and high resolution models with HPC. Those customers have a wide range of distinct workloads that have different optimization points.

A key factor in HPC is the economic benefit of raw performance. Performance and Performance Density drives ROI and differentiation, which is the key to profitability in this sector. One size doesn’t fit all – hence we get Fat Nodes, Clusters, Blades, Accelerators, GPGPUs and MICs, all aimed to drive more performance and performance density for a range of workloads. An HPC cloud abstraction must express that differentiation.

4) Is FABRIC ripping at the seams? What technologies are going to change the game in interconnect?

I spent some time with Qlogic and Mellanox discussing the future of fabric. Both had a really strong case as to why their products are making a difference today, but I got a strong sense that we are in an era of raging incrementalism.

5) Is Efficiency the Hobgoblin? Will the top500 list show any improvement in efficiency?

I think this gets a resounding yes. Last November the top system on the list was a hybrid of Intel Xeon 5600 series processors and Nvidia GPU’s. The ratio of Rpeak to Rmax was 54%. RIKEN, the new #1 system was a very admirable 93%. In addition, the last two publications have shown tangible improvements in GF/W for the top10 and the top50. I truly hope this trend continues. Today’s #1 system is 825 GF/W. Kirk Skaugen, Intel’s VP for the Data Center Group, made a declaration to work with research partners and industry collaborators to reach an EXAFLOP in 20MW, which is 50000 GF/W. We have a long way to go here. Architectural innovation will be required to reach this kind of objective.

The old adage “don’t eat anything bigger than your own head” doesn’t apply to beer I suppose… And so, Marianne takes on the challenge step by step. At Hamburg this year, the HPC industry could be said to be much in the same place.