More reasons to be cheerful for HPC

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In his third report from SC14, Tom Wilkie looks at vendors other than those involved in the new US HPC project and explores why their mood is also upbeat.

It was perhaps only natural, given that the SC14 was being held in New Orleans last week, that much of the focus was on announcements about US domestic supercomputing policy. But European supercomputer vendors were upbeat as well.

Bull, the French supercomputing company, announced its own strategy to move towards the exascale domain. It was an affirmation of confidence in the company’s high-performance computing business, following the take-over of Bull by Atos earlier this year.

Meanwhile the Italian company Eurotech was proudly displaying the ‘Hive’ (High Velocity) addition to its Aurora line of supercomputers, offering the possibility not just of Intel and Nvidia but also Arm processor technology in a very energy-efficient water-cooled system.

Claude Derue, Bull’s IT services marketing director, was in an optimistic mood: ‘We are at the beginning of a new story.’ Bull used to be predominantly a European company, he said, but following the merger: ‘We can rely on the Atos organisation to deliver around the world. Atos is a clear asset for Bull HPC.’

Like IBM, Bull believes that high-performance computing is changing and it appears independently to have come to very similar conclusions to IBM about the future direction of high-performance computing. Just as IBM had emphasised data-centric computing so, as Derue outlined it, Bull’s strategy is to combine exascale and big data together to offer the capabilities of numerical computing and analysing large amounts of data.

But he also stressed that, in future, there would be a need to tailor computer systems to the specific needs of the customers, much more than had been done hitherto. Atos, he continued, had IT expertise in many vertical markets while Bull had the expertise in technology. ‘We are a step forward compared to other vendors. The future of HPC will be to fit with the vertical market needs and Bull plus Atos are in a unique position to provide this.’

Bulls’ strategy, again thinking on parallel lines to IBM, is to widen the scope of its operations by taking technologies developed for the HPC market and reaching out to enhance the combined company’s position in IT for the enterprise. ‘There is a double opportunity,’ Derue concluded – both HPC and the enterprise IT sector.

The announcement by Bull has five major components: an open exascale supercomputer, code-named Sequana; a matching software stack, known as the bullx supercomputer suite; a new fast interconnect, code-named BXI; a range of servers with ultra-high memory capacity, known as the bullx S6000 series; and a set of services to assist customers to develop their applications and make the most of exascale.

The new generation of BullXI interconnect is intended to free the CPU from the overhead of handling communication – communication management is coded into the hardware, according to Derue.

The ultra-high memory capacity servers, the bullx S6000, are intended to address applications – for example genomics– that require in-memory data processing. The first model to become available is fully scalable up to 16 CPUs and 24 TB of memory.

Sequana is deliberately designed to be compatible with successive generations of different technologies (CPUs and accelerators) and can scale to tens of thousands of nodes. It will take advantage of Bull’s liquid cooling systems in order to ensure energy efficiency, and the first version will be available in 2016 and, Derue said: ‘We are paving the way to exascale. With our solution, 100 petaflops systems are possible.’ 

But in all this, Bull too has its eye on scaling in both directions. It is interested in providing powerful computing cheaply to the smaller enterprises. Because Sequana is modular in concept, designed as a group of building blocks, customers will find it easy to deploy and to configure for their own needs, Derue said. But it has also been conceived as a platform that can integrate different types of technologies, so, Derue continued, it should enable smaller customers to take advantage of modern technologies.

The flexibility to tailor systems to the customer’s preferences is one of the selling points of Eurotech’s Hive system. It is so-called not only because of the ‘high velocity’ computing it offers but also because, as it is encapsulated in Eurotech’s distinctive ‘brick’ format, a computer consisting of many of these elements somewhat resembles a beehive.

The concept had been introduced at ISC’14 in Leipzig in the summer, but now, according to Eurotech’s Giovanbattista Mattiussi, it has been translated into a proper product. The idea, he said, is to extend the company’s product line so the Hive will be available in several versions: CPU only; CPU plus accelerator (which could be either a GPU or the Intel Phi ‘co-processor’); and an extreme accelerated version which would include Arm based processors, in particular the Applied Micro X Gene 64 bit realisation of the Arm architecture.

Hive offers a stripped down architecture to get more performance but with lower energy consumption, he said. The system has a new cold plate derived from industrial refrigeration that is cheaper and lighter than previous versions.

According to Mattiussi, the company is working with partners to define the configurations that will be appropriate for different applications. The market segments the company has its eye on include high energy physics (QCD), bioinformatics, molecular dynamics, CAE, machine learning, finance, GPU-based rendering, and seismic migration.

This is the third in a series of articles by Tom Wilkie, prompted by last week's SC14 supercomputing conference and exhibition in New Orleans.

In the first article, which can be found here, he considers whether individual companies will be able to develop exascale technology on their own given that some of them are now forming partnerships to speed development.

The second article can be found here and looks at the implications of HPC technology for enterprise computing.