The fastest computers are going hybrid

During the past decade, the biannual list of the world's fastest supercomputers has become increasingly dominated by systems that use a mix of processors, including commodity processors produced by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

Automobiles aren’t the only machines taking a hybrid approach. Judging by the recent SC08 conference in Austin, Texas, the future of supercomputer design seems to be heading toward using multiple types of processors in a single system. That approach is a significant change in the supercomputing field, and like any major shift in technology, it comes with hidden problems.

In the past decade, systems that use commodity processors produced by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have increasingly dominated the biannual Top500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers compiled by laboratories at the Energy Department and a group of universities.

Although not as powerful as vector processors built specifically for the high-performance computer market, those chips are much less expensive and offer more processing power per dollar when bought in bulk.

Recently, however, developers began augmenting commodity processor-based supercomputers with specialty processors, such as floatingpoint accelerators, field-programmable gate arrays, repurposed graphics processing units (GPUs) and even IBM’s Cell Broadband Engine (Cell/BE) processors, which were designed for video game consoles.

For example, developers of the top computer on the most recent Top500 list — Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Roadrunner, a 1.1 petaflop IBM machine — augmented its AMD Opterons with IBM PowerXCell processors. And on the Green500 list, which is the Top500 reordered by power efficiency, the top seven computers all ran on IBM Cell/BE-based BladeCenter QS22 servers.

Why the shift? Better power usage.

“Power performance has become a very important metric as of late — some feel even more important than [simply] performance,” said Kaushik Datta, a graduate student in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. Datta presented the results of a study he led about the best ways to design multicore systems at the SC08 conference.

Although the Top500 list ranks machines by how many floating-point operations/sec (flops) a machine executes, the Green500 ranks them by how many flops per watt a machine executes. In that realm, specialized processors rule. One industry expert at the conference estimated that the Cell/BE can produce about 14 flops for about 97 watts of energy, and a GPU can produce about 2 flops per watt. Meanwhile, a generic x86 processor can produce only about 1 flops at that wattage.

“As you specialize the chip, you’re able to be much more efficient with what you are doing with the flops,” Timothy Mattson, a senior research scientist at Intel, said during a talk on the company’s experimental 80-core Tera-scale processor.

Of course, new architectures require developers to rework their code. We hear that the Cell/BE, which is still in its infancy, has an especially steep learning curve for programmers.

“Are you willing to put in the time to program” for these environments? Datta asked rhetorically. That is the question system builders and developers will have to ask themselves while hungrily eyeing performance gains.

NEXT STORY: Council honors public servants

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.