Supercomputers: Q&A guide

Bill Goodwin

Hans WernerMeuer, an international authority on supercomputers, and co-founder of the Top 500 list, talks to Computer Weekly about the latest developments and trends in high performance computing.

Q.The UK is number 4 in the TOP500 list of countries. What do you think is driving the growth of supercomputers here?

In all high-tech countries the major driving force for using supercomputers is the enthusiasm to stay competitive as a nation. This is an absolute must. The UK was (from the beginning of the TOP500 Lists in 1993) always among the three major nations in Europe, besides Germany and France.

However, in the next couple of years I see an advantage for France, compared with UK and Germany. France is the only country in Europe with an own supercomputer manufacturing industry, i.e. Bull.

Bull is one of the competitors aiming at Exascale computing system (capable of handling million trillion calculations per second) which is to expected in approximately seven years. The other competitors are the US, Japan and China.


Q. What are the most interesting applications of supercomputers you have seen in the UK?

The main applications of supercomputers in UK are in research (information services and education) and in industry (finance). In addition, the UK Weather Forecast Institute is a big user of supercomputers.

The authors of the TOP500 Project are always faced with the challenge that up to 50 percent of the sites in a country do not specify their usage properly.

In the 38th TOP500 List, 13 sites in UK (out of 27) did not specify their usage, nine sites in Germany (out of 20), nine sites in France (out of 23) and 126 in USA (out of 263). In comparison, Japan only has 10 unspecified sites (out of 30) for applications.  

 Q. What are the most important business applications you have seen in high performance computing ?

To name just a few:

  • Oil exploration
  • Aircraft development
  • Computational chemistry
  • Car manufacturing
  • Material sciences
  • Life sciences
  • Finance industry

Q. How do you see the trend to businesses adopting “big data” analytics technology impacting on supercomputers?

Big data or data intensive computing is a new working field for supercomputers. In general traditional supercomputers are not very suitable for these types of applications. Traditional supercomputers are used for number crunching, while the treatment of big data needs data crunching. The question is open, even among experts. At the International Supercomputer Conference (ISC12)  in Hamburg, this topic will play a dominant role. 

Q. To what extent is there a “skills shortage” in high performance computers and what is the impact of that shortage?

HPC heavily relies on parallel programming. This will grow in importance, considering that large supercomputers in the future will have millions of cores. Training and education of programmers will need to be implemented to meet the parallel requirements. The only way to do it is to support universities so that they can educate their students in parallel programming.

Q. Are there export controls on supercomputers?

To our knowledge there are no explicit export controls for supercomputers, especially if the supercomputers are coming from the US. But it is obvious that if a supercomputer manufacturer in China is building their own supercomputer with Chips from Intel, they will not receive the latest Chip sets from Intel but have to work with older chip versions.

Q. What are the technology advances you are seeing in supercomputers?

While Moore's Law for computer chips predict a doubling of power every 18 months, we have detected a doubling of supercomputer power already in 13.2 months. The reason for that is besides the influence of the chips, improvements in energy consumption of parallel processor systems. Additionally we see an improvement of a performance factor of 1000 in 11 years.

Q. How much more powerful will they become? Is there a physical limit?

We definitely will see the first Exascale system (capable of handling million trillion calculations per second) in seven years. Yes, there will be a physical limit and reaching this limit will end the silicon technology and also Moore's Law. The question is whether we will reach this limit already before coming up with the so called Zetascale system in 2030 or later. (Zetaflop/s means 10 to the power 21 Floating Point Operations per second.)

Q. How important is processing power? 

Depending of the application the processing power is extremely important without any doubt. The US is very well represented in all parts of the List, in the TOP50 as well as in the rest.

Cray is the leader of the TOP50, mainly focused on high-end supercomputers, while Hewlett Packard has no system in the TOP50. But HP is the number two manufacturer in the TOP500 after IBM, which means HP is well represented in the rest of the TOP50.

IBM on the other hand is well represented in all parts of the TOP500 and therefore the leading manufacturer in the TOP500 List.

The situation with Japan and the leading manufacturer there, Fujitsu, is quite different. Japan is currently recovering from many years of disappointment with their supercomputer industry. Twenty years ago they had a neck-to-neck race with the US, then falling down tremendously to a couple of percentage.

For all HPC experts in the world it was more than a big surprise that Japan/Fujitsu took over one year ago the number one spot in the world with their K computer. Japan just owns 6 percent of the systems installed in the world but they are going to improve that by offering their commercial version of the K computer.

Q. How do you think supercomputers can contribute in a significant way to humanity?

Life sciences, will become a major driving force for the supercomputer development and usage. The EU funds a very large neurological/brain project that should increase the understanding of the functionality of human brains in various aspects (i.e diseases like alzheimer).

 Let's end with a statement by Nellie Kroes, the EU digital agenda commissioner, when announcing the doubling of EUR HPC funding from 630 million euros to 1.2 billion euros, “High-performance computing is a crucial enabler for European industry and for more jobs in Europe.”  "We've got to invest smartly in this field because we cannot afford to leave it to our competitors."

Professor Hans Werner Meuer will be giving a lecture on supercomputers at the House of Lords this week.

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