Thursday, 18 February 2010

Exascale or personal HPC?

[Originally posted on The NAG Blog]

Which is more interesting for HPC watchers - the ambition of exaflops or personal supercomputing? Anyone who answers "personal supercomputing" is probably not being honest (I welcome challenges!). How many people find watching cars on the local road more interesting than F1 racing? Or think local delivery vans more fascinating than the space shuttle? Of course, everyday cars and local delivery vans are more important for most people than F1 and the space shuttle. And so personal supercomputing is more important than exaflops for most people.

High performance computing at an individual or small group scale directly impacts a far broader set of researchers and business users than exaflops will (at least for the next decade or two). Of course, in the same way that F1 and the shuttle pioneer technologies that improve cars and other everyday products, so the exaflops ambition (and the petaflops race before it) will pioneer technologies that make individual scale HPC better.

One potential benefit to widespread technical computing that some are hoping for is an evolution in programming. It is almost certain that the software challenges of an exaflops supercomputer with a complex distributed processing and memory hierarchy demanding billion-way concurrency will be the critical factor to success and thus tools and language evolutions will be developed to help the task.

Languages might be extended (more likely than new languages) to help express parallelism better. Better may mean easier or with assured correctness rather than higher performance. Language implementations might evolve to better support robustness in the face of potential errors. Successful exascale applications might expect to make much greater use of solver and utility libraries optimized for specific supercomputers. Indeed one outlying idea is that libraries might evolve to become part of the computer system rather than part of the application. Developments like these should also help to make the task of programming personal scale high performance computing much easier, reducing the expertise required to get acceptable performance from a system using tens of cores or GPUs.

Of course, while we wait for the exascale benefits to trickle down, getting applications to achieve reasonable performance across many cores still requires specialist skills.

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