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The New Age of Aquarius

Is Intel’s processor dominance in HPC at an end? Is this the dawning of a new age?

IBM’s POWER8 systems seem to be gaining some traction, especially with interest in the new Minsky platform, specifically the NVlink performance and integration into the system.

Accelerator-based computation is progressively seen as a way of increasing HPC performance for more and more of a variety of jobs, e.g. CFD, Deep Learning, AI, Life Sciences etc. Previously, the variety of jobs were limited, but now it seems to be opening up, as research and experience in these “new” technologies matures.

The daddy of the accelerators is clearly the GPU. NVIDIA did a great job of creating an ecosystem for development and its marketing campaign has been relentless (sorry, I don’t discount AMD, however, the adoption of CUDA over OpenCL has been a factor). The Xeon Phi, the other mainstream accelerator coming from Intel is arguably less successful in adoption, however, that might be changing (but that is another story…).

One of the main drawbacks of any accelerator application is the bottleneck of actually getting the application data onto the GPU/phi/etc., NVlink goes some way to solve this problem. Traditionally, data has to come over the PCIe bus to the accelerator, at 32 GB/s, NVlink provides 80 GB/s more between the GPU and CPU than the traditional PCIe. OK, not quite the 115 GB/s between the POWER8 socket and the DDR4 memory, but getting there (who knows what NVlink 2 .0 will be?)

This performance allows faster communication between the GPU and CPU, increasing the ability of the GPU to work on more data and push the results back to CPU. We have already seen the memory bandwidth performance of the POWER8 system lead to better performance for memory intensive applications over x86, the addition of NVlink can only lead to further performance gains over a comparable x86 system.

One can never discount ARM in the dawning of a new age. The train seems to have slowed slightly, but with the Japanese building a Post-K supercomputer based on ARM (I like to call Super K J), it will be stepping up again. Many manufacturers are talking about ARM especially since the introduction of 64-bit support. Will it be a matter of time before someone introduces an NVlink ARM system?

Together with IBM’s POWER8 systems, there are a whole host of systems that are gaining in popularity. With the increased popularity of accelerator based computation and adoption of NVlink, the future is certainly looking bright for HPC performance. It will be fascinating to watch the progression of ARM in the market over the next few months, I will report back on anything new in due course.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please let me know.