2016 Predictions for Supercomputing: Interconnect, Containers and Alternative Processors
By   |  February 08, 2016

Olli-Pekka Lehto works in various roles involving supercomputers since 2002. These days he manages the Computing Platforms group at CSC.

Interconnect wars heat up
Intel’s Omni-Path interconnect will challenge the dominance of Mellanox InfiniBand in the mid-range HPC space. At SC15 both vendors were strongly asserting their relative superiority, but still based mostly on synthetic benchmarks and projections. With major deployments of both the latest-generation EDR InfiniBand and Omni-Path in the beginning of the year, it will be very interesting to see how the performance stacks up in real life scenarios.

The French supercomputer manufacturer Bull (Atos) is also deploying the first system using their BXI interconnect in the 2nd half of 2016. This is a very promising design especially in the high-end of the market and provides competition for Cray’s Aries interconnect that has dominated that segment for a couple of years.

This new competition is very welcome and I predict it will provide more alternatives, drive introduction innovative features while keeping prices down. However having a multi-system environment with a unified fabric for storage, like we have at CSC today, may become more challenging to architect: The different high-speed interconnect fabrics may be incompatible and require gateway devices.

While ubiquitous, Ethernet has long been confined to the low-end and “embarrassingly parallel” clusters with relatively little take-up on the mid- and high-end general purpose clusters. However, the hyperscale industry is deploying ever larger and more scalable Ethernet fabrics with especially the financial community pushing for low latency solutions. Thus I predict that the first very large and fairly capable Ethernet-based HPC cluster for scientific workloads will be deployed in 2016. I’ve predicted this for many years and it has yet to emerge so I’m not betting any big money on it :) If such a thing would happen and prove successful, it would set an important precedent and potentially open the floodgates for Ethernet-based solutions in the mid-range.

Containers make custom environments easy
Containers can provide a mechanism that’s more lightweight than traditional virtualization for supporting custom compute environments in a platform-independent way. For example, users can run their own containers on HPC systems and HPC centers‘ can provide their software in containers for people to run on their laptops. There are also many other potential use cases to explore both on user application as well as systems management side.

During the last year the notion of having HPC workloads in containers (especially Docker) has gained increasing traction. Container support has been emerging including IBM’s container support with LSF and the User Defined Images service in NERSC, based on their Shifter software. The latter has also led Cray to announce nearly imminent support for containers on their XC systems.

There’s still a lot of work to do to and a lot of open questions. Thus I expect that next year will see a boom in pilot projects testing and refining containerization in a HPC context. We at CSC will definitely be testing these features in the upcoming year. I also predict that it will be almost certain that containers will become a standard feature of HPC systems within a couple of years, occupying a middle ground of use cases between full-on virtualization and “traditional” bare-metal HPC.

Alternative processors inching to the mainstream
Let’s face it: Intel is completely dominating the processor scene in the HPC server market. However, serious challengers are in the horizon with multiple ARM vendors (Broadcom, Cavium, etc.) building increasingly capable processors. Also increasingly capable HPC prototype systems are being developed, most prominently within the pan-European Mont Blanc project. Furthermore IBM has opened up their POWER processor ecosystem via the very active OpenPOWER consortium and is closely partnering with NVidia to tightly integrate GPUs. Time seems to be ripe for some of these challengers to really step up.

On the flipside, there is such a large inertia built around Intel and the related ecosystem that I expect that in the near future there will not be a huge surge of systems in the HPC space featuring such alternative processor architectures.

That said, these challengers to Intel’s throne will continue build up momentum in the datacenters of web-scale IT companies like Facebook, Rackspace and Google. The massive amounts of hardware that these giants consume will surely drive economies of scale and probably make these chips very attractive from a price/performance standpoint for the HPC market as well.

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