Hybrid systems on course to speed corporate apps

When you're dealing with nuclear weapons, figuring out problems and figuring them out fast is Job One. For scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, that means having the most computing power possible.

For about a year, the US federal security research facility in Los Alamos, has used an IBM-built supercomputer, dubbed Roadrunner, whose peak performance is about 70 teraflops.

Today, that's not enough. So Los Alamos is getting ready to fire up a new incarnation of IBM's Roadrunner, a hybrid machine that will provide the scientists with a lot more power -- 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second -- once it's installed this fall.

The $200 million hybrid system still runs the AMD Opteron chips of the original Roadrunner but adds Cell chips that were first designed for the PlayStation 3 gaming console. In tests conducted this spring, the new supercomputer became the first machine to break the petaflop barrier.

Much of the performance boost came from the Cell chip, developed jointly by IBM, Toshiba and Sony Computer Entertainment, to handle high-performance computations for video games. That also makes it will suited to handle other complex calculations, and "bitwise" operations like generating random numbers.

The well-publicized tests have attracted the attention of IT managers in a variety of industries who increasingly need significant performance boosts without the corresponding rise in energy demands.

The companies that are generally out in front of new technologies -- financial services firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers and petroleum giants -- are expected to be the first to take on hybrid computing commercially.

The hardware is very costly, and significant work is often required to adapt software to the technology, leaving early adoption to large firms with big budgets to take on projects that push the envelope.

At this point, a major retailer probably wouldn't want to use a large hybrid system to run a network backbone. But for, say, a Wall Street company that needs to gauge risk and price derivatives, a hybrid-enhanced performance boost may be just what the CIO ordered.

Steve Conway, an analyst at research firm IDC, noted that some companies have turned to multicore processors for added performance but have found that applications and calculations are running more slowly than they did using single-core chips.

"[Performance issues] are causing a real shift in the capability to get the work done," he said. "It's no secret that microprocessor speeds stalled out a few years ago. [Computer makers] need to do something, [so] they're adding accelerators."

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Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, predicted that 40 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies will be using large hybrid computers within five years.

Repsol YPF SA is now working with IBM to build a supercomputer that will help it more clearly image oil reserves buried 30,000 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, said Francisco Ortigosa, director of geophysics at the Madrid-based oil and gas company.

The hybrid system will run a combination of IBM's PowerPC processor and PowerXCell 8i chip, a souped-up version of the Cell processor, Ortigosa said. Slated to be up and running early this fall, the system is expected to have a peak performance of 120 teraflops, which likely would make it one of the top 10 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

"The benefit for the business is significant," Ortigosa said. "The oil business is a business of managing risks. It is very difficult to see the Earth's interior. The clearer the picture, the more accurate the risks can be estimated and the costs reduced."

Analysts note that hybrid computing has slowly to move beyond the supercomputer level to the server level and even to clients, making the technology more attractive to corporate users.

Companies such as Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices are starting to sell graphics processing units, or GPUs, as low-cost accelerators to be combined with general-purpose chips for commercial applications. That effort is "in its infancy," but sales for that purpose will likely pick up in the coming months, Olds said.

On the client side, Toshiba just this month started shipping its first hybrid laptops -- the Qosmio G55 line -- which run a Cell chip and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and list for under US$2,000. Toshiba has dubbed its version of the Cell chip the Toshiba Quad Core HD processor.

"We've had hybrid computing for some time," noted Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee and a co-creator of the biannual Top500 list of supercomputers. "But there will be a shift [in its use]. The next wave is coming. They're being exposed to more people. The graphics boards are cheap and provide a significant number-crunching advantage."

Whenever you have those two things going for you, it moves interest," he added.

And chip makers are starting to develop new hybrid technologies to take advantage of IT interest.

Intel, for instance, has gotten as far as developing prototypes of hybrid chips -- with two different kinds of processors on one chip.

Jerry Bautista, director of technology management in Intel's microprocessor research lab, said engineers there are working on putting a CPU and an accelerator in the form of, say, an encryption or decryption engine on the same chip.

He added that the market will decide how quickly Intel pushes ahead with the complex project.

AMD, too, is building a single chip containing both a processor and an accelerator. Patricia Harrell, director of stream computing at AMD, noted that its engineers could come up with Opteron and graphics processors on the same chip, or multicores and an accelerator on a single chip.

"We will be talking about mainstream developers taking advantage of a baseline capability in desktop and consumer systems" in five to 10 years, Harrell said. "It will be pervasive."

She said that AMD will likely ship the first such product in late 2009.

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Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat, warned that despite the benefits of the technology for some commercial applications, such implementations could be rocky early on.

"It can be an IT nightmare," he said. "This isn't [yet] something for the general enterprise. This is for highly specialized applications, no matter how you look at it. You've got to be willing to pay."

One big engineering challenge, said John Morrison, high-performance computing division leader at Los Alamos, is tweaking the software so it can run on hybrid machines.

To take advantage of an accelerator, programmers have to rewrite existing applications so they send appropriate data to the accelerator. The developers must also add code to the accelerator that tells it what to do with the data.

Vendors such as Nvidia, AMD and IBM are selling specialized tools designed to help make this reprogramming challenge a bit easier, but it's still a daunting task.

"It takes some innovation and understanding of what the algorithms are and how the data flow is going," said Morrison, who noted that of everyone on his IT team, the programmers are doing the heaviest lifting in the effort to bring the hybrid Roadrunner online.

"You have to restructure your code to do this. Each application has its own strategy for what work will be handed off to the [accelerator]. A portion of each application has to be rewritten," Morrison explained. "It's more of a challenge for our programmers than [for] our IT people."