High performance computing yet to take off

Hardware giants tout lower cost high performance computing (HPC) to tempt users. However, adoption remains limited outside of certain verticals in the Middle East .

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  January 6, 2004

|~|sgi.gif|~|“Most vendors are marketing high performance computing... while what they are offering is commercial computing,” says SGI’s Gilbert Soufan.|~|Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) is developing a high performance computing (HPC) 3D Visual Reality Centre with Schlumberger Information Solutions (SIS) to facilitate the processing of seismic data from its oil fields. When live, the centre will crunch masses of data, ensuring KOC’s drilling activities are more accurate and, therefore, more profitable. According to SIS, oil fields like those operated by Kuwait Oil can each generate anywhere between 10,000 and 10 trillion distinct measurements per day. Over a 20-year lifespan, this can add up to 15,000 billion pieces of data. Such volumes require huge amounts of processing power and storage. It is this need that vendors such as SGI, Sun, IBM and Dell are targeting with their high end servers and Linux clusters. Sun, for instance, recently unveiled a line of servers and workstations based on AMD’s Opteron platform. The servers also feature the vendor’s Sun Fire visual grid and are aimed at the scientific research, energy and manufacturing verticals. “We are launching one of the most compelling technical computing and visualisation offerings in the market today, with better price-performance, greater processing power and grid solutions across our product lines,” says Neil Knox, executive vice president for volume systems at Sun Microsystems. Elsewhere in the region, Intel continues to push its Itanium offering and Linux into the energy sector, especially from its Energy Competency Centre in Abu Dhabi, which it opened in September 2002 with the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training (CERT). “A hybrid form of HPC is dominating the Middle East energy sector with more customers migrating to Itanium-based Linux clusters,” says Ferhad Patel, strategic relations manager, Middle East & North Africa, Intel. While the expensive and proprietary HPC systems of Sun, IBM and HP have largely dominated the verticals in the region in the past, this appears to be changing and Intel’s Itanium-plus-Linux pitch seems to be gaining ground. The chip manufacturer’s Advanced Computing Programme (ACP), which is focused on creating HPC systems with off-the-shelf components, also helps. So far, 30% of the top 500 supercomputers worldwide run on the Intel platform. However, while Intel is gaining ground on the more expensive RISC-based HPC solutions, the development of a low cost alternative means the line between high end servers, clusters and supercomputers is growing ever more fuzzy. “Most vendors are marketing HPC, super computers and clusters based on company branding, while what they are actually offering is commercial computing,” says Gilbert Soufan, territory manager, SGI Middle East. “Only if a vendor’s offering falls in the domain of technical or scientific computing, with HPC-specific application performance and massive parallel processing scalability features, can you call it a true HPC solution,” he explains. Despite its efforts to ensure end users understand the definitions surrounding HPC, SGI is itself muddying the waters as it too offers Intel processors and operating systems like Linux alongside its proprietary HPC systems. “Most manufacturers introducing Linux and Itanium machines are offering up to 8-way machines and then connecting them using a switch to build a cluster,” says Soufan. “What we did with Linux was scale it to 64-processors running one single image of Linux,” he explains. While more affordable HPC offerings suggest local uptake is set to grow, the region suffers from a HPC glass ceiling. With minimal R&D done in the region and limited adoption, barring the oil & gas vertical, there are few markets that vendors of the technology can target. Also, local demand still borders on a few gigaflops while countries like the US and Japan are working in terms of teraflops and petaflops. The only supercomputers from the Middle East to rank in the Top 500 list of HPCs are those from Saudi Aramco, which come in at 212. However, Intel’s Patel is optimistic about HPC adoption in the Middle East. “Back in the 1980’s it would cost a few million dollars for a few gigaflops, but now you can buy the same power for around US$3000. This will drive more organisations to use HPC,” he says. ||**||

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