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Let software catch up with silicon

Posted: 01 Jun 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:multicore processor architectures? technical computing software? software catching up to IC?

By simplifying the way we do things, we allow the software to catch up with advances in silicon, making teraflops on the desktop a feasible and useful technical accomplishment.

In terms of available floating-point operations per second on processors and systems, Moore's Law hasn't reached its limits yet. But in terms of usable performance by most software!even advanced technical computing software!perhaps it already has.

A look at the Top500 Supercomputer Sites List shows that a large portion of the technical computing workload has moved to commodity Linux clusters: commodity servers, networks and storage. Novel multicore processor architectures, such as the Cell Broadband Engine (Cell BE), also show the potential for substantial computing power (hundreds of gigaflops) to reside in entry-level servers, with, say, two to four processors.

With too much computing power readily accessible!whether in SoCs or commodity clusters!companies and industries worldwide as well as individuals may be able to tap this power to solve more problems than ever before. There's only one problem: Where's the software to take advantage of all these processors, cores and threads? For the most part, it's not there yet, even in areas historically focused on leading-edge technology enablement, such as technical computing. In fact, IDC's Earl Joseph concluded in a study on technical computing software that "many ISV codes today scale only to 32 processors, and some of the most important ones for industry don't scale beyond four processors."

Even when a vendor parallelizes or scales its code, the cost of rearchitecting and recoding is too high relative to the perceived market benefits, the study found out.

Enter Roadrunner.

Roadrunner will be the world's first supercomputer based on the Cell BE. When it is up and running at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2008, it will be capable of peak performance of more than 1.6 petaflops or 1.6 thousand trillion calculations/s. Roadrunner is the first rendering of a hybrid computing architecture: multiple heterogeneous cores with a multitier memory hierarchy. It's also built entirely out of commodity parts: AMD Opteron-based servers, Cell BE-based accelerators and Infiniband interconnect. Standard processing (e.g. file system I/O) will be handled by Opteron processors, while more mathematically and CPU-intensive elements will be directed to the Cell BE processors.

Roadrunner is not just a single custom project for a national lab supercomputer!it represents a new architecture. We are inviting industry partners to define the components (APIs, tools etc.) of the programming methodology, so that the multicore systems are accessible to those partners as well. In this way, major scientific developments wouldn't be limited to big universities or major research labs. The benefits of such focused industry enablement can "trickle down" to almost every aspect of our daily lives.

As architectures become more complex and supercomputing power becomes a commodity, we are focused on keeping application development simple, forcing the art of engineering into the framework enablement, not the application development. And by returning to a simpler way of doing things, we allow the software to catch up with advances in silicon, making teraflops on the desktop a feasible and useful technical accomplishment.

- Catherine Crawford
Chief Architect
Next-generation Systems Software
IBM Systems Group's Quasar Design Center

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