Hybrid Systems on Course to Speed Corporate Apps

Firms in some industries could use petaflop performance to perform complex calculations.

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Analysts note that hybrid computing has slowly to move beyond the supercomputer level to the server level and even to clients, making the technology more attractive to corporate users.

Companies such as Nvidia Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. are starting to sell graphics processing units, or GPUs, as low-cost accelerators to be combined with general-purpose chips for commercial applications. That effort is "in its infancy," but sales for that purpose will likely pick up in the coming months, Olds said.

On the client side, Toshiba just this month started shipping its first hybrid laptops -- the Qosmio G55 line -- which run a Cell chip and an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and list for under $2,000. Toshiba has dubbed its version of the Cell chip the Toshiba Quad Core HD processor.

"We've had hybrid computing for some time," noted Jack Dongarra, a professor at the University of Tennessee and a co-creator of the biannual Top500 list of supercomputers. "But there will be a shift [in its use]. The next wave is coming. They're being exposed to more people. The graphics boards are cheap and provide a significant number-crunching advantage."

Whenever you have those two things going for you, it moves interest," he added.

And chip makers are starting to develop new hybrid technologies to take advantage of IT interest.

Intel Corp., for instance, has gotten as far as developing prototypes of hybrid chips -- with two different kinds of processors on one chip.

Jerry Bautista, director of technology management in Intel's microprocessor research lab, said engineers there are working on putting a CPU and an accelerator in the form of, say, an encryption or decryption engine on the same chip.

He added that the market will decide how quickly Intel pushes ahead with the complex project.

AMD, too, is building a single chip containing both a processor and an accelerator. Patricia Harrell, director of stream computing at AMD, noted that its engineers could come up with Opteron and graphics proc­essors on the same chip, or multicores and an accelerator on a single chip.

"We will be talking about mainstream developers taking advantage of a baseline capability in desktop and consumer systems" in five to 10 years, Harrell said. "It will be pervasive."

She said that AMD will likely ship the first such product in late 2009.

Jim McGregor, an analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat, warned that despite the benefits of the technology for some commercial applications, such implementations could be rocky early on.

"It can be an IT nightmare," he said. "This isn't [yet] something for the general enterprise. This is for highly specialized applications, no matter how you look at it. You've got to be willing to pay."

One big engineering challenge, said John Morrison, high-performance computing division leader at Los Alamos, is tweaking the software so it can run on hybrid machines.

To take advantage of an accelerator, programmers have to rewrite existing applications so they send appropriate data to the accelerator. The developers must also add code to the accelerator that tells it what to do with the data.

Vendors such as Nvidia, AMD and IBM are selling specialized tools designed to help make this reprogramming challenge a bit easier, but it's still a daunting task.

"It takes some innovation and understanding of what the algorithms are and how the data flow is going," said Morrison, who noted that of everyone on his IT team, the programmers are doing the heaviest lifting in the effort to bring the hybrid Roadrunner online.

"You have to restructure your code to do this. Each application has its own strategy for what work will be handed off to the [accelerator]. A portion of each application has to be rewritten," Morrison explained. "It's more of a challenge for our programmers than [for] our IT people."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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