The global publication of record for High Performance Computing - LIVEwire Edition / November 10, 2004: Vol. 13, No. 45B

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by Tom Tabor, Publisher

Cray Inc. co-founder and Chief Scientist Burton Smith is a recognized expert on high performance computer architectures and programming languages for parallel computers. An IEEE and ACM fellow, in 2003 he won the Seymour Cray Computing Engineering Award from the IEEE Computer Society and was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering. HPCwire publisher Tom Tabor talked with Smith about HPC trends and challenges.

Tabor: Burton, first of all thank you for taking the time to chat with us today.

Since the early days of Tera, with great admiration, weíve followed your work and recently your achievements at Cray. Iím sure many or our readers would like to know how you are spending your time these days?

Smith: It's the usual mix of time spent working and time spent with my family. A lot of my work life is focused on future products for Cray and on the Cascade Project, which is our DARPA HPCS initiative. I also spend a lot of time talking with Cray customers and prospective customers.

Tabor: The breakthrough architectures you developed at Tera were very exciting to the HPC community. I recall an HPC meeting in Europe many years ago a panel of CTOs from many of the large vendors were asked what they thought was the most exciting architecture in HPC and to a man they all referenced your work. Are you and Cray still interested in multi-threaded architectures?

Smith: Yes. Multi-threading is an element of the Cascade Project. Microprocessor vendors are already implementing multi-threading to a modest extent. It's one of a number of promising technologies for HPC and other computing markets. We think Cray has a real leg up in experience with multi- threading.

Tabor: What other exciting HPC technologies do you see emerging in the next five years or so?

Smith: I think heterogeneous computing will be a tremendously important trend, especially when it's integrated to the point where we can efficiently apply it to a single problem. Today, the HPC community doesn't know how to do this. Within the next five years, I believe we'll learn how to decompose problems in order to subject parts of them, as appropriate, to vector processing, multi- threaded processing, off-the-shelf microprocessing, FPGA processing, and so on.

Tabor: How important is that?

Smith: Aside from optimizing times-to-solution, heterogenous computing is important because microprocessor performance is running out of steam. We're going to see more divergence from standard microprocessors. We'll see a greater variety of offerings from microprocessor vendors, new processor architectures like FPGAs, more aggressive multi-threaded architectures, EDGE architectures. FPGAs, for example, already do some things well that standard microprocessor architectures do poorly: bitwise and small integer operations, for example.

I think we may also see more optical interconnect technology and greater use of this technology. Itís not particularly cost-effective today.

Tabor: How will Cray be involved in leveraging these technologies?

Smith: It's safe to say Cray will remain interested in balanced, high- bandwidth systems, which means we'll be heavily involved in using, and in some cases pioneering, new technologies.

Tabor: Were you involved in the OctigaBay acquisition? If so, in what way?

Smith: Sure, I was involved. I was very excited about what OctigaBay was doing and the strong match with Cray's market philosophy.

Tabor: What do you think of Jack Dongarra's new benchmarks?

Smith: The HPC Challenge benchmark tests are very important. These are the first metrics in a long time that give us more rationality in talking about the balance of HPC systems. Granted, standard benchmarks are no substitute for running your own codes on candidate machines, but standard benchmarks allow people to make more informed guesses about which machines they should look at. In that sense, the HPC Challenge tests are a very useful addition to the HPC scene.

Tabor: What's the best way to measure a system's productivity vs. its speed?

Smith: On the topic of productivity and speed, they're not orthogonal. Speed has a lot to do with productivity. I like the definition of productivity that says it's utility divided by cost. Utility has to do with what an answer's worth. That is often time-dependent. Taking 48 hours to predict tomorrow's weather doesn't have much value. It's the same with anything time-critical. Being able to do things faster is one of the great advantages of supercomputers.

The price/performance ratio does not recognize that utility is dependent on time. The more time matters, the more you benefit from a capability system. Also, since productivity equals utility divided by cost, itís important to realize that cost is much more than the initial acquisition cost. It needs to include programming time, power consumption, facilities renovation or construction, and so forth. In the final analysis, if utility/cost is greater than 1, you're making money. If it's less than one, you're losing money.

Tabor: What are the biggest challenges in running single applications on future systems with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of processors?

Smith: The biggest challenge is designing systems with enough balance to get high performance at those scales. It's easy to build big systems that don't work well. Some other major challenges for systems on that scale are reliability, programmability, debugability and performance tuning.

Tabor: In general, what are the biggest technical obstacles to progress in HPC today?

Smith: Narrowness of applicability is one. Another is difficulty of programming. We need more programmable machines.

Tabor: How would you propose to overcome these barriers?

Smith: Making balanced systems available is the first important step. Beyond that, the HPC industry needs to work on new programming language ideas. We need more productive HPC architectures and languages.

Tabor: What needs to happen with programming models and languages?

Smith: It used to be the case that architectures were designed for programming models. Now, people build architectures and then try to figure out how to program them after the fact. MPI evolved in this way, as a post- facto attempt to develop a programming model for existing systems. We need to return to designing computers for programmability.

Tabor: Going down a parallel HPC technology path, what do you think about and how would you define grid computing?

Smith: Grid computing means different things to different people today. To me, it's about using the Internet to access resources remotely and to accomplish things with these resources. You could do data sharing on a resource at one location, computing at a different location, visualization at a third location. Grid computing is not as capable today as some people would like us to believe, but it's a natural and cost-effective way to do some important things. The great myth is that you can run supercomputing applications on armies of Internet-connected PCs. That would not be a very balanced supercomputer.

Tabor: Thank you again Burton for your timeÖ Any final thoughts?

Smith: One more thing is that the uniprocessor has pretty well run out of steam. Parallelism to date has been a nice strategy for HPC users and an afterthought for microprocessor vendors. Now, it is becoming a matter of business survival for all processor vendors. Parallelism is going to be taken more seriously, starting with the idea of exploiting multi-threading and multiple cores on a single problem. This is a major change. Imagine if Microsoft wanted to write Office in a parallel language. What would that language be, and what would be the architecture to support it? We don't have good answers to these questions yet.

From 1985 to 1988 Smith was a Fellow at the Supercomputing Research Center of the Institute for Defense Analyses in Maryland. He received the BSEE from the University of New Mexico in 1967 and the Sc.D. from MIT in 1972. He now serves as chief scientist of Cray Inc.

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