Flexing a super (computing) muscle

The U.S. remains No. 1 in the world in high-performance computing, but IBM's Dave Turek examines whether it can maintain its current domination.

When it comes to high-performance computing, the U.S. enjoys a position of unparalleled dominance in the field of supercomputers. But there's little guarantee that today's technology leaders will occupy the same place of prominence a decade down the road.

Case in point: Japan, whose share of the so-called HPC, or high-performance computing market, has fallen precipitously since the early 1990s.

At IBM, which has engineered a remarkable climb to the top of the HPC rankings in the last decade and a half, Dave Turek is charged with thinking about present and future technologies in his role as vice president of "Deep Computing." And he has perhaps the best vantage point at Big Blue to assess potential overseas challengers in the supercomputing field.

CNET News.com caught up with Turek, who last week announced the first sale of IBM's Blue Gene/P supercomputer to Russia. The installation at Moscow State University's Department of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics will go toward research in nanotechnology, new materials, and life sciences.

Q: I was paging through a recent report, and when they looked at the first Top500 list, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, which are the today's top ranked leaders in HPC, didn't even make that list. That was in 1993, which wasn't all that long ago. How do you account for that really dramatic change in a relatively short time?
Turek: If you think about 1993 and what was happening in the industry, it was an inflection point where pricing in the industry was moving away from the mainframe style pricing or workstation style pricing. The consequence of that was there is this big jump in price performance efficiency and it was reflected in a variety of systems.

IBM's entree into the space in 1993 was a system that became known in the vernacular as Deep Blue because of the chess matches we play with (chess champion Garry) Kasparov. But the architecture of that system was a radical departure from the way people were building systems. Until that time, if you were building a super computer, you assumed the responsibility to build a microprocessor, interconnect, system design, operating system software--you did everything.

What we did in 1993 was we borrowed technologies from a lot of areas and made new investments in a narrower set of areas and leveraged these broader investments in the industry to bring a radically improved price performance construct.

Something analogous to what IBM did with the PC in terms of taking off-the-shelf parts?
Turek: Well, yeah, and it's like what happened with Linux clusters in 2000 where it made the transition from workstation pricing to PC pricing with the x86 lower-end servers...So it was the embrace of a different kind of cost performance curve coupled with the popularization of parallel computing to attack high-end problems.

It was only after we achieved success that other people started coming down our pathway because there was a lot of debate in the '90s.

In the early '90s, experts were saying this was going to turn into a race between the U.S. and Japan. The Japanese had about 20 percent of the market back then; now its under 5 percent. Why do you think the predictions failed to live up to the advanced billing?
Turek: I think that there was a general belief by the companies operating in the marketplace that the past was a prelude to the future and it was going to be vector-style architectures, while our view was that was an absolute dead end, that you had to go parallel and make a bet along those lines. We made the bet and the Japanese did not. It was only after we achieved success that other people started coming down our pathway because there was a lot of debate in the '90s.

Do you think that explains U.S. dominance of the list? If you look at the November '07 rankings, U.S. representation is even greater than it was back in the early 1990s.
Turek: The economics had a huge amount to do with it. Further dislocations came about because there was a greater embrace of this kind of technology for strategic benefit by companies in the U.S. than we saw in Japan. You know, success begets success. So the robustness of the U.S. economy and its diversity with respect to the volume of activity going on in the automotive, aerospace, and financial services, and petroleum, etc., became the financial drivers or demand for this kind of technology and so this was a virtuous cycle.

You've gone before Congress, arguing how critical it is to extend U.S. leadership in high-performance computing. Have the powers that be in Washington fully embraced that message?
Turek: Yes. From a policy perspective in Washington, there's a focus on this.

What about the possible potential for success of challenges from overseas where there are state-sponsored rivals? Let's say Bull in France or Lenovo in China?
Turek: In a controlled and planned economy, you could try to make the argument that by setting up a protectionist kind of policy you could do that to stimulate an indigenous industry...I think that that is a pretty problematic strategy to implement...I think that one of the impacts of globalization has been that the cream rises and people are going to try to make use of the best technology they can as opposed to engaging in a very speculative endeavor of trying to embrace these other policies and practices to build an unrelated indigenous industry that's going to serve some nebulous goal under the Partisan State Commissar. That may happen, but I think the likelihood is fairly low.

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