New Portland HPC Startup is ARMed and Dangerous

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In a 2009 interview with insideHPC, data scientist Thomas Thurston talked about research he had done predicting ARM CPUs were on a path to disrupt X86 in HPC. This was the first time most of us had considered the idea of cell phone CPUs someday being relevant for HPC and, frankly, it caused a bit of a fuss. So we asked him to elaborate a year later, which he did in this article Armed Invasion of HPC? posted in 2010. The fallout from that discussion ranged from constructive to destructive. Some thought it was a provocative idea, others thought it was offensively naïve.

That was then. This is now.

Despite his skeptics at the time, it seems Thurston was onto something. Just today nCore launched BrownDwarf, an actual ARM- and DSP-based supercomputer. What started in cell phones has moved upwards into smartphones, tablets, servers and now even supercomputers as well.

It’s still early, but things are starting to pop. This year alone Nvidia came out with its Kayla GPU-ARM development platform. The Pedraforca Cluster was announced by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, which will deploy ARM CPUs, GPUs and InfiniBand. Even AMD, a bastion of X86, this year announced its server strategy based on ARM CPUs codenamed “Seattle.” The sound of ARM began as a whisper, but has quickly become a thunder in Intel’s ears.

For those who don’t know, Thurston is the world’s leading expert at predicting if businesses will survive or fail. He does this through predictive modeling and data science, and has worked with heavyweights like Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and tech investing titan Bill Hambrecht. He’s also a venture capitalist and a hedge fund manager. We caught up with Thurston today to share the news on BrownDwarf and get his thoughts on the burgeoning ARM renaissance in HPC.

As early as 2007 we had models predicting ARM would become a disruptive threat to X86 in HPC over the following seven-to-ten years. It’s happening a little faster than our original forecasts, but is basically playing out note for note. Back then we saw ARM moving up from smartphones into tablets (there was no iPad at the time) and low-end laptops. Next it would move into servers and even HPC. Back then everyone was very dismissive of our predictions and sometimes even rude. They said we clearly didn’t know what we were talking about. It turns out we were right, and several other folks saw this coming too. Now it’s undeniable. I can’t wait to see what happens next. The billion dollar question is: how will Intel respond?”