Cheap Stuff: Trends in Commodity HPC

Commodity trends at the low end are generating interesting ideas in HPC

Now that I am finished with my SC09 videos, I assume some of you are thinking “it is about time.” In my defense, I wanted to post and discuss the videos at a slow pace so that you can take the time to see my cutting edge work (cough, cough). By the way, if you like or dislike the video idea, please let me know in the comments. Although it may not look like it, doing the video is hard work. I spend a lot of time running around the show trying to make appointments and give everybody their 10 minutes (or less) of fame. Plus, it takes time to edit the video.

While I was writing about the videos, I happened on this somewhat sensational story about an inexpensive $100 Wii balance board working as well as a $17,885 medical device. I won’t bore you with the details, but comments about this story often seems to center around how the medical company is gouging customers. The naive view certainly would produce that opinion. Of course, HPC folk are cut from the rocket science cloth and a little more analysis is in order.

Consider yourself in the medial device market. You identify a product need, perform the research and development, gain the various certifications and approvals needed, hire a sales force, and set out to make your mark. Getting your product to market required a lot of capital and you price your product based on a competitive analysis and your development costs. In any case, your price is based on a highly focused market (i.e. the number of units you expect to sell is probably be in the thousands).

Let’s change your job. Now you are working for a consumer gaming company. Smart people in your company propose a dohicky that adds to the console experience and works very similar to the medical device. You spend about as much money as the medical company did on their product, but now you price it 100 times less than the medical device because you plan on selling 100 times more of the product.

There are other differences between between the markets as well. Supporting a medical device is quite a bit different than a consumer device. Consumers can often wait for repairs, professionals often lose money when equipment does not work.

Looking at the details of the two markets gives some insight into why the costs are so different. And, if you are in the medical device company you may want to take a good look at the “toy” that works about as good as your professional version. You can bet an entrepreneur is thinking about this situation.

If you have not figured it out yet, this same trend is what has been fueling the HPC market for the past ten years (or more). Technologies from the bigger markets have found their way into the HPC market and redefined the price to performance curve. The x86 HPC story is well known at this point. Are there any new products entering the consumer markets that may have a play in HPC?

The obvious answer is GP-GPU technology. I believe the GP-GPU idea is going to play out in a big way this year. I also think software will still be an issue — just as it has been ever since someone got the idea to do more than two things at the same time in the same program. The mass market numbers for GP-GPU processors guarantee that low cost parts will be available, but I think that is only half the story.

One development I have been watching very closely are low powered CPUs. I consider low power to be in the 25 Watt or less range. There seems to be plenty of commercial incentive to produce these processors for things like netbooks, e-book readers, cell phones, and even something called and ibook. Before you chuckle, have a look at this announcement.

If you recall, a company called SiCortex produced supercomputers using lower power MIPS processors (MIPS processors are a commodity design found in may embedded devices). Their idea was to use large amounts of low power processors connected with a fast network.

The idea worked quite well and were it not for the economy falling over last year, I might still be writing about them. In any case, large numbers of small lower powered processors offer some advantages in terms of cost, power, and cooling. Using many cores also means that codes must be scalable and finer grained. A fast low latency network helps with this issue.

In addition to low powered processors you need things like motherboards. In terms of HPC better densities can be had with smaller cooler motherboards. Ideally a small low powered motherboard should have enough memory slots, at least one GigE port, and a PCIe slot for a possible high speed interconnect. These types of boards are starting to emerge in the market. For instance SuperMicro has just introduced the
X7SPA-HF a Mini-ITX motherboard (6.75″ x 6.75″, 17.15cm x 17.15cm).

This motherboard uses the new Atom (Pinetrail-D) dual core 17 Watt processor, as two Intel GigE ports, a x4 PCIe slot, and can be passively cooled. Passive cooling means boards can be packed in a more dense fashion with less fans and noise.

If you were to combine smallish GP-GPU chips with these low powered processors, then you would be boosting your HPC credibility quite a bit.

AMD’s Fusion and the new Intel Clarksdale are examples of this type of integration. NVidia is also in the fray with it’s Ion2 chipset that is rumored to have at least 32 stream processors in a low power package. Now that puny little low power node doesn’t seem so useless.

Another interesting aspect of this approach is the potential for very low cost nodes. Of course, you will need a lot more nodes than you normally have in a standard clusters, but the nodes themselves would cost quite a bit less. It may be possible that the low price points make the nodes almost disposable (i.e. not really worth fixing, just add a new one).

In closing, there are reasons I am proffering this idea. The low cost, low power, integrated hardware is on it’s way. The commodity market is demanding it. I’m not sure it will work for HPC, but we should be taking a close look at this type of approach. Next time you are standing on your wii balance board doing yoga (or ski jumping) remind yourself that it was not too long ago that using x86 processors for HPC was considered a daft idea. And, the first time you heard about some HPC hacker contorting a video card into solving linear equations or searching genome sequences you probably chuckled. Not so funny now is it?

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