Architecture and Hardware

HPC: Making a Small Fortune

Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

There is an old joke in the high-performance computing community that begins with a question, “How do you make a small fortune in high-performance computing?” There are several variations on the joke, but they all end with the same punch line, “Start with a large fortune and ship at least one generation of product. You will be left with a small fortune.” Forty years of experience, with companies large and small, has confirmed the sad truth of this statement. 

As we all know, the computing industry is extremely competitive, and new trends and technologies have repeatedly had transformative effect. One need look no further than the regular inductees to the Dead Supercomputer Society to see the devastating effects of the ongoing attack of the killer micros on the market for custom high-performance computing system designs. The microprocessor performance increases over the past thirty years due to decreasing feature sizes, higher clock rates and greater architectural complexity have repeatedly dashed the hopes of many high-performance computing entrepreneurs.

The market lesson is that one false step inevitably leads to failure, particularly for startup companies struggling to establish a new niche in the face of commodity economics.   It has never been truer than in today’s economy, where potential buyers are retrenching and evaluating each purchase with a discriminating and sometimes jaundiced eye. Recently, the high-performance computing industry lost several established companies to merger and acquisition, due to weak market positions. We have also seen startup companies fail due to missteps and financial pressures.  

This reminds me of another old analogy, which compares building computer hardware and software to playing pinball – one’s reward for playing well is the opportunity to keep playing via free games. The punishment for not playing well is equally clear; one must continue to insert quarters into the machine. Venture capitalists know this well, as they evaluate the pinball skills of those pitching business plans.

Without doubt, we need a new generation of high-performance computing systems, from consumer devices to exascale platforms, to drive innovation, improve health care, manage critical infrastructure and ensure safety and defense. The question is whether the rise of multicore and manycore chips and explicit parallelism in the commodity microprocessor and GPU markets will finally change a few of the rules of the pinball game, via a combination of consumer economics pressures and technological need, the latter due to clock frequency and power limitations.

I believe we are at an inflection point, where new approaches must both survive and flourish if we are to continue to deliver higher performance in effective and reasonable ways. It is worth remembering that Andy Grove’s famous comment, “Only the paranoid survive,” is but the trailing phrase in a larger, more perspicuous comment, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”

We cannot be complacent about the future, especially now. We must continue to innovate, even if – especially if – that means adding quarters to the innovation machine.

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