Tuesday, 23 March 2010

What’s the next revolution in technical computing?

[Originally posted on The NAG Blog]

It’s a question that absorbs the attention of the technical computing community, especially those working at the leading edge of technology and performance (high performance computing, HPC). What is the next disruptive technology? In other words, what is the next technology that will replace a currently dominant technology? Usually a disruptive technology presents a step-change in performance, cost or ease-of use (or a combination of these) compared to the established technology. The new technology may or may not be disruptive in the sense of discontinuous change in user experience.



Why is identifying disruptive technology so important? First, those who spot the right change early enough and deploy it effectively can attain a significant advantage over competitors as a result of a substantial improvement in technical computing capability or reduction in cost. Second, identifying the right technology change in time can help ensure that future investments (whether software engineering, procurement planning, or HPC product development) are optimally spent.



However, in a field as fast moving as technical computing, spotting the next disruptive technologies of specific relevance to your individual needs can easily become a full time activity (which is why NAG helps to do this for others).



One very credible candidate for disruptive change in HPC right now is GPU computing (or related products that might be in development). However, at the Newport conference recently, the discussion turned to what the next disruptive technology to hit HPC would be (after the possible GPU disruption). One suggestion, made by John West (of InsideHPC fame), was that the next disruptive technology could be in software, especially programming tools and interfaces. This builds on the fact that parallel computing is no longer a specialist activity unique to the HPC crowd – parallel processors are becoming pervasive across all areas of computing from embedded to personal to workgroup technical computing. Parallel programming is thus heading towards a mass market activity – and the mass market is unlikely to view what we have in HPC currently (Fortran plus MPI and/or OpenMP, or limited tools, etc) with much favour. I’m not knocking any of these, but they are not mass-market interfaces to parallel computing. So perhaps the mass market, through volume of people in need – and companies driven by economics will come up with a “better” solution for interfacing with supercomputers.



As a HPC community we lost control of much of our hardware to the commodity market some years ago. Maybe we now face losing control of our software to the commodity community too.

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