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Supercomputing goes mainstream

Supercomputing isn't just for science any more--it's not even just for supercomputers. So-called high-performance technical computing (HPTC) is spreading beyond traditional academic and governmental environments, and emerging as a serious option for enterprise IT.

That idea--what might be thought of as mainstream supercomputing--is something of a theme at this year's SC2004 Super Computing conference, the annual show for high-performance computing, networking, and storage, under way this week in Philadelphia.

"High-performance computing has traditionally been applied to highly complex scientific and engineering workloads, mainly in the academic world, for government research, and in data-intensive projects, such as designing chips, aircraft, cars, and pharmaceuticals," explains Peter ffoulkes, (editor's note: this last name is correct, it's Welsh) manager of Sun Microsystems' high performance and technical computing marketing group.

Until recently, HPTC solutions were confined to dedicated, specialized, number-crunching supercomputers housed in special environments. Today, ffoulkes says, many HPTC environments run on computing grids, which makes them much more attractive to businesses.

"Most grid environments today are best adapted to the background batch processes, which are typical of the long-running compute-intensive processes that you find in the HPTC marketplace," ffoulkes says. "We believe that we're at a tipping point into commercial applications. People are getting closer to being able to deliver near real-time capabilities with grid technologies. As that happens, grid starts getting very interesting to people."

Grids can deliver an integrated hardware/software stack to simplify the process of deploying clusters for parallel computing, ffoulkes says. These integrated clusters can deliver hundreds of thousands of processors as a computing resource for HPTC applications.

Sun was among a number of vendors at the SC2004 event touting new and-or expanded supercomputing offerings for mainstream commercial users. Sun's evolving "grid power by the hour" initiative is focused on the HPTC market. The Santa Clara-based systems company is positioning its recently released Sun Fire V20z and V40z Opteron-based servers running Solaris 10 as ideal platforms for supercomputing

Sun also announced a partnership with Topspin Communications to include support for Solaris, Linux, and Windows-based Operating Systems for the grid and utility computing market. Under terms of the agreement, Sun and Topspin will offer integrated utility computing solutions that include Topspin's intelligent fabric products and Sun's Opteron-based systems. The solution is designed to link servers into high-performance grids, virtualizes network and storage connectivity, and provisions applications on demand.

Topspin unveiled an InfiniBand I/O solution jointly developed with IBM for the IBM eServer BladeCenter. The solution will offer 80-gigabit connectivity to the chassis, remote direct memory access, and the ability to consolidate clustering, LAN, and SAN traffic from the chassis over a single I/O fabric.

InfiniBand is a standard-server interconnect and I/O technology designed to create a unified, high-performance "fabric" to share I/O interconnects among many servers.

Microsoft is also ramping up its presence in HPTC market. The Redmond software giant announced that it would soon offer a new software development kit (SDK), which will provide tools and APIs for developers to build integrated, high-performance computing applications. The SDK will be available to select partners later this month, the company said.

Microsoft also announced that it is changing the name of its planned Windows Server 2003 HPC Edition to Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition. Microsoft expects to release it in the second half of next year.

These and other product announcements from mainstream business vendors like H-P and Dell underscore the "mainstreaming" of supercomputing, says Sun's ffoulkes.

"Most of the people in the HPTC space are innovators and early adopters, pioneering solutions that become mainstream a few years down the road," he says. "In many cases, the HPTC market has been a leading indicator for future business-computing requirements."

The first industry segment to make serious use of HPTC solutions in grid environments, ffoulkes says, is financial services. "We see them as the tip of the tipping point," he says. "Everything is aligned. They've got the expertise, they've got the need, the money, and they can see the business advantage. "

Started in 1988, the supercomputing conference series brings together scientists, researchers, software developers, policy makers, corporate managers, CIOs, and IT administrators from universities, industry and government to be "immersed" in the latest developments in technology, applications, vendor products, research results, national policy, and national/international initiatives. The annual show this week, which runs through Friday, Nov. 12, is expected to draw 6,000 attendees from 45 states and 40 counties to Philadelphia's David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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