France plans to focus on HPC

Warren Clark reports on a new national plan for supercomputing in France unveiled at Forum Teratec at the beginning of July

A new supercomputing plan for France was announced at Forum Teratec, held on 1-2 July at École Polytechnique, on the outskirts of Paris. Teratec, formed in 2005, has more than 80 members, and aims to bring together stakeholders in the field of digital simulation. The conference has been a fixture for the past nine years, and is widely considered to be 'the' event for HPC in France, attracting around 1,200 people.

Teratec president Gérard Roucairol, and his colleagues Hervé Mouren and Christian Saguez, outlined the new French national plan, which has been developed for the French government as one of 34 initiatives to drive French industry forward.

The plan focuses on six major markets, in which the authors feel that digital simulation will have an increasing impact: health, energy, multimedia, urban systems, agriculture (in French 'végétal', which in this context means something close to 'the food production chain'), and materials. Many of these markets matched the topics addressed in the workshops on the second day of the conference.

A major goal of the plan is to ensure that digital simulation is available to small and medium companies, and not just larger ones. This means not just access to HPC hardware, but also training in the use of the associated software so these companies can get the best from the tools.

Efforts to encourage smaller companies to take advantage of high-performance computing are being pursued at the European as well as at the national level, as discussed in this report on the PRACEdays14 meeting in Barcelona at the end of May. 

However the need to adapt application software to cope with massive parallelism – and the difficulty of doing so -- was touched on repeatedly during the plenary sessions at Teratec. The topic formed part of the opening address by Teratec president Gérard Roucairol, who cited the need for software authors to adapt their applications as the key issue facing the HPC/simulation software market.

The point was echoed by Cyril Zeller of Nvidia in a later presentation, as he addressed the company's vision for exascale. Bull's Jean-François Lavignon, speaking in his capacity as president of the European Technology Platform for HPC (ETP4HPC), suggested that such software rewrites can take anything from five to ten years, so the topic is likely to remain at the top of the agenda for some time.

Anxiety has been growing for some time about whether the software will be available to take advantage of the new architectures -- in his review of the Top500 list of fastest computers last year (2013), Erich Strohmaier expressed worries that while the performance offered by accelerators had risen dramatically ‘the commercial market does not have applications that run well on these systems.'

A second challenge featured during the Forum was the need for system designers to achieve better energy efficiency – just as cooling and energy efficiency had been prominent at the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC’14) the week before, as reported here.

In two separate talks, from NASA and Airbus, Rupak Biswas and Thierry Chevalier respectively underlined the need for their HPC centres to be energy efficient. Indeed, many of the sponsor presentations highlighted the development work being undertaken on system architecture in order to reduce power consumption.

A variation on the urban systems topic – which forms part of the French national plan -- was explored by Lavignon, as he outlined ETP4HPC's vision of a 'smart grid', underpinned by HPC-based system control. In the USA, around two-thirds of power generated is lost without being used, and a 'smart grid' that coordinated state-provided services such fire and flood response teams could help reduce these losses significantly.

For the exhibitors, Teratec Forum has become a 'must attend' event for HPC in France. Many have been involved since the very first event, and with visitor numbers increasing year on year, its importance looks set only to increase in the coming years.

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