Yesterday, in Texas, the annual Supercomputing 2008 trade show began with a speech from Michael Dell – chief executive of computer company Dell. Dell have often dabbled in high performance computing (HPC) and from his keynote speech it would appear that Mr Dell wants to delve further into the HPC area. However, his speech was reportedly more like a hardcore sales pitch.
He began by showing how far we have to go to design a power efficient, easily programmable, redundant supercomputer. He said that the human brain has around 100 billion neurons, each with around a 1000 or so synapses, each running at near 20 petaflops of “raw computing performance”, which is it was to be built today (which it can’t) would break through the petaflops barrier and would cost an estimated $3.6bn (£2.4bn). He rounded off his comparison by saying: “The human brain uses about 20 watts of energy, so we evidently still have a long way to go.”
Someone from the crowd asked Dell what would it tale to simulate the human brain, and Dell shrugged off the question saying that he never suggested simulating the brain, what he meant to demonstrate that HPC clusters are not so great when compared to mother nature.
“For me, the dream and the excitement about computers was not to replace the human brain,” Dell said. However, he believes that more can be done to change the way people act with machines: “It is a fairly rudimentary process today. We type keys and something happens. I think there is an enormous opportunity to improve the man-machine interface.”
Dell spoke on the “three waves of supercomputing”, which according to him included specialised vector machines and proprietary operating systems in the 70s, followed by microprocessors during the 80s and 90s, and toward the end of the 90s standards-based parallel clusters. He says that the 4th wave will “deliver higher density machines”, most likely in Blade or other custom form factors with pools of shared storage, and focus on a constant hassle of running an administering them. Dell went on to show figures from Tabor Research, a supercomputing market researcher, showing that around 70 percent of HPC budgets are eaten up by staff and administrative items in the budget.
Dell wants to encourage cheap HPC setups, just like it did with its servers and home PC’s in the past, and would like to see some businesses and developing countries have them.
He said that five years ago, a teraflops of computing cost around $1m, but these days you could get about 25 times as much for the same price. The density has not gone up as much as the price has dropped, but it’s still pretty impressive. Just three years ago, Dell said that a 2,500 core cluster with 1,250 servers using 3GHz x64 processors would deliver near o 9.8 teraflops. These days a 1,240 core machine using just 155 servers will deliver 10.7 terraflops – a 90 percent reduction in servers.