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Intel: 3D Web to save HPC

The super killer app

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SC09 Intel CTO Justin Rattner has a stark warning for the HPC community: Come up with a killer application or the business will stagnate.

As the person who spearheaded the creation of the ASCI Red massively parallel system for the US Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories - the first machine to break through the 1 teraflops performance barrier and the top of the Top 500 charts from 1997 through 2000 - Rattner is no stranger to the HPC space. The Intel senior fellow and chief technology officer is responsible for a 40,000-node Xeon cluster that the chip maker uses to simulate future chip designs before it creates the masks that will be used to etch the real chips on silicon.

The HPC business has been good to Intel in the past decade since ASCI Red came out, but according to Rattner, it is stagnating with relatively anemic growth.

Kicking off the SC09 supercomputing event in his home town of Portland, Oregon, Rattner flashed up a chart showing spending on HPC hardware, software, and services from 2008 through 2013, and the business is basically stagnant. The projections that Rattner cited showed HPC sales growing at a compound annual growth rate of 3.6 per cent in those years, rising from a little bit below $8bn a year in 2008 to around $9bn in 2013.

"This is not a healthy business," Rattner declared. "If this is what we have to look forward to, we are all in for a tough time."

Intel, of course, doesn't want to have a flatlined HPC business - not with commercial server customers figuring out all kinds of ways to do more with fewer servers. And Rattner and his peers at Intel think they have the answer, a little something called the 3D Web. Basically, it is the World Wide Web redux, only this time with a standard 3D interface backed by complex and continuous simulations and creating simulated worlds where people create and sell products. In short, companies will need to design their products and scientists will need to do their research in simulated worlds.

To do this, it means the kind of exotic computing that the world's supercomputer centers don't even take for granted has to go mainstream. And rather than looking for a killer app in particular, Intel wants to help foster a killer application framework. "HPC needs a killer application - it needs to be simple, it needs to be elegant."

Rattner showed the standard block diagram of the functional capabilities of the 3D Web architecture Intel is trying to foster, but basically the idea is to merge technologies in the HPC field, which allow for the load balancing of applications across a cluster of machines and which provide the underlying physics of simulations to be married to the identity management, content distribution, and commerce and payment systems of emerging cloud infrastructure.

With such a combination, Rattner says that companies will be able to provide continuous, realistic simulations not only of objects in virtual worlds and how they interact, but also simulate the interactions of virtual users as they come into these worlds and interact with objects and each other. Basically, Rattner is talking about Second Life in high rez and with much more sophisticated simulations.

"Behind these three characteristics, " Rattner said, referring to continuous simulation, multi-view 3D animation, and immersion and collaboration, "I see enormous demands for computing power." Yes, there was a bit of a glint in his eyes. In tests that Intel has done in the labs, it has demonstrated that the computing requirements needed to simulate worlds takes on a log scale as users are added, their interactions increase, and the realism of the simulations increases. "It is an n2 relationship, and n2 problems always warm the cockles of my heart because n2 means revenue."

To make the point of how this 3D Web might work, Rattner linked remotely to Aaron Duffy, a biology researcher at Utah State University who is simulating fern populations in a simulated world created in an environment called ScienceSim. The simulation that Duffy has created simulates the land (including soil conditions), water, and weather of an environment that has simulated ferns growing in it.

The simulation is sophisticated enough to model real weather, and how wind patterns in the environment will affect the distribution of fern spores. With a click of a button, Duffy was able to show the genetic diversity of the ferns in the simulated population.

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