As strange as it may seem, I sometimes do not know exactly what I will be writing about when a start a column. Okay, if you read my columns it may not seem so strange. In any case, I often try to think of a topic and then try and determine if it would be interesting to the hard core HPC audience. For instance, just today was another silly headline “… Releases Desktop-Sized Supercomputer.” Wow, I thought maybe someone is doing something interesting. Click to the article and find it is a PC with three Nvidia Tesla c1060 cards. Yawn. That is not news, that is plugging boards in some PCIe slots. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like what NVidia is doing, but at some point, plugging boards in a PC and running around yelling “Supercomputer” is just a bit much for an old HPC geek like me.
Again, let me say to those that may take this the wrong way, GPU computing is great stuff, NVidia is doing cool things and they are to be congratulated for putting big FLOPS in small places, but I find the PC vendor hype is little too much. Let’s back up little bit because you may be wondering why I’m all hot under the collar about this issue.
First, some of you may not know the word “hype” is short for “hyperbole” which means excess or exaggeration. It is a rather polite way to say male bison excrement, which is a polite way to say, well you know what I mean. Second, I will make the rest of this rant general enough that you can substitute clouds, grids, green, and clusters, for the word supercomputer at any place in the text.
Where to begin. Let’s take a look at electric heaters. Electric heaters are appliances that convert electricity to heat. If I buy an electric space heater, take it out of the box, turn it on, it gets hot. Clear? Moving on, if I buy a desktop PC with three GPU cards in it, take it out of the box, turn it on, it also gets hot and it sits there waiting. Heater heats, computer waits. I hope I’m not going to fast for you. Let’s take it a step further. If I buy one thousand servers each with eight cores and turn them all on, I have eight thousand waiting cores. The computer needs something else.
To help emphasize my point, I have designed a small quiz to see if you are an HPC geek or a marketing droid. Here is question number one.
If I purchased 1000 servers do I have a (select all that apply)
- space heater
If you answered A, you are a geek. If you selected B, C, and D, you are definitely a droid. If you only selected B, C, or D, then you might make a good droid, but you are thinking too narrow. The HPC geek would realize that raw hardware does not become something until the right software is installed and configured properly. The clever marketer would realize that depending on the latest industry buzz, the “Cloud Ready” sticker could be placed over the “Grid Ready” sticker.
Which brings us to the next somewhat related issue. Floating point performance. Here is the second question.
How fast is your computer?
- really fast
- really, really fast
- really, really, really fast
- need more information
If you answered D, then you are a geek. Get back to work as you probably don’t care about the rest of this article. If you selected C, then you are a marketing droid extraordinaire. If you chose A or B, then we need talk about upgrading your computer because you need a “really, really, really” fast system.
More to the point, when I read a FLOPS number if I don’t see the name of the benchmark or the word peak within a few words I immediately stop reading because the hype machine is in full gear. I recall being told by a big company marketing droid not to use the results for the NAS parallel LU benchmark I ran because the GFLOPS number what not what everyone else was getting. He then went on to explain the everyone was getting XX GFLOPS and I should report that number. I assumed he was talking about the HPL number, but just to be sure I asked. He said something that I did not understand. I reported the LU number because I always thought credibility was good thing and besides why would I report the HPL number for one of the NAS tests.
Here are some take-away points. First, a pile of hardware is just that. I have said repeatably in the past, racks of hardware are not a supercomputer. HPC clusters are built from commodity parts, but that does not mean any commodity PC vendor can sell and support a supercomputer. Of course, it is easy to add the buzz words to web pages and brochures, but good HPC vendors are few and far between. Second, the term supercomputer has no strict definition other than “a type of computer you cannot afford”. The same goes for clouds, grids, clusters, green computing, and what ever the next big thing is. In the end, the over-selling and over-hyping of anything is counter productive — particularly if you have no clue about your customer needs, or what it really takes to deliver FLOPS on a consistent basis. As I tell vendors who ask about the HPC market, “You know those rocket scientists you always hear about, well they use HPC as do a bunch of other really smart people. They respond well to results, benchmarks, and new products (that work). You will loose big points by trying to over sell or hype products. These are smart people, give them the good data, understand their needs, and they will make the right decsion.”
Finally, I realize marketing hype is a worn out topic, so I won’t continue droning on about what seems to be a side effect of the free market system. It just feels good to let off a little steam sometimes. And, no offense to the droids out there. You are just doing your job. Perhaps this column will help you refine your approach to the market. I also want to mention, SC09, which I believe is cloud enabled this year, is a few weeks away. I will be sending messages to the twitter cloud as I travel the show floor. In addition, the crack Linux Magazine video team will be there once again. Shine-up those supercomputers.
Douglas Eadline is the Senior HPC Editor for Linux Magazine.