Saturday 30 October 2010

Comparing HPC across China, USA and Europe

[Originally posted on The NAG Blog]

In my earlier blog post today on China announcing the world's faster supercomputer, I said I'd be back with more later on the comparisons with the USA, Europe and others. In this morning's blog, I made the point that the world's fastest supercomputer, in itself, is not world changing. But leading supercomputers, critically matched with appropriate expertise in programming and using them, togther with the vision to ensure use across basic research, industry and defence applications can indeed be strategically beneficial to a nation - including real economic impact.

There are plenty of reports and studies describing the strategic impact of HPC within a given organisation or at national levels (some are catalogued by IDC here), so let's take it as a premise for the following thoughts.

With this in mind, there are some comparisons to be made between the approaches to supercomputing across the USA, Europe and China.

The USA has long enjoyed near total dominance of the hardware technology underlying the leading supercomputers. The USA has invested repeatedly in ensuring that American supercomputer manufacturers have the technology to deploy the world's largest supercomputers. The last time the USA lost the public leadership crown of fastest supercomputer, a huge investment in Amercian supercomputer technology followed. As well as national support for the development, the strong implicit requirement for USA organisations to "buy American" ensures a continued USA supercomputer manufacturing industry. As a result of the sheer size of the country, the USA has a large HPC R&D community. There is also significant usage of HPC in American industry and additional support for this through government initiatives like INCITE.

Despite the recent growth of Bull, and their highly-rated supercomputers and in-house HPC expertise, Europe has not seen it essential to have a home-grown supercomputer manufacturing industry (beyond the component level R&D which is strong in Europe). Europe has always highlighted its expertise in applied HPC software development and in software-related HPC R&D as its distinguishing strength on the international stage. European organisations have always bought supercomputers from around the world - and since they are likely to continue to enjoy access to products from around the world, have no need to develop independent supply from wholly European sources.

But the news of China's investment in hardware, software and people (and stated ambition of independence of supply) should make a clear message to USA, Europe and others that they cannot rely on their continued leadership of HPC. And thus the economic benefits of HPC might soon be driving Chinese growth rather than the European or American economies.

There is one other potentially killer advantage that China might have. All the predictions of the path to the next levels of supercomputer performance (Exascale) involve major changes in the technology - much greater levels of parallelism (seeing this now with GPUs), memory performance challenegs, resilience, etc. As Dave Turek of IBM has said before, China is mostly not hindered by legacy code - they can start anew with the best HPC ideas and methods of today, looking to the future. In USA and Europe, our obsession with "protecting our investment" in established applications, means we first have to figure out how to get from yesterday's software technology to current methods, then to the future. Is "protecting our investment" actually constraining our future?

[More on legacy code and revolutions vs evolution in a blog coming here soon ...]

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