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TR: What about the heat problem? I assume the systems people will build using your next-generation systems will have even more than 512 processors, all in one room, putting out huge amounts of heat.

ELG: We can force the heat out of the racks with faster fans, but then the computer room becomes very difficult to cool. The only way to deal with more heat is to move the heat faster. There are computer rooms where if you open up a floorboard, they tell you ‘Don’t put your foot in there,’ because the air down there is moving at 100 kilometers per hour.

So the other part of what we want to explore with Ultraviolet is how to reduce this heat and how to deal with applications that are not scaling [that is, do not run as fast as expected when running on more processors in parallel]. These two are related. Let’s say an application runs for 100 seconds on a single processor. And let’s say that on 100 processors it runs ten times faster – it runs for 10 seconds. That is a great improvement – but you’re using 100 times as many processors to get there. As such, you’re only 10 percent efficient; the application is using ten times more energy and putting out ten times more heat than it needs to.

TR: So how do you make applications run cooler?

ELG: One big part is the way we break problems down into pieces and the way we allocate those to the processors. We did an analysis of about 50 customer applications to see what was going wrong with these applications when they’re running in parallel. We identified four or five major areas.

One is communications latency [delays]. The problem is that most applications require constant synchronization, to make sure every process is ready before the next step of the computation. This synchronization uses a lot of time. It’s like having six people trying to stand in a straight line – they have to check with each other. With 60, or 600, or 6,000 people, it takes exponentially longer to get in a straight line.

Second after latency is the communications bandwidth issue. Sometimes you want to transfer a lot of data and the thickness of the connection between the processors will then decide how long it takes for that huge piece of data to get through. If you’re waiting, you’re not computing. That’s another area where efficiency drops.

The third area is load imbalance, which is a huge problem. Say you want to model the weather in your area. You assume that the volume of air in your area is a huge cube, and you divide that into eight sub-cubes and you distribute those sub-cubes to different processors. On a day when the weather is homogeneous across the big cube, the load on those processors may be balanced; but if there is local turbulence in one of the sub-cubes, there will be processors that sit waiting while other processors finish.

The fourth area is when an application needs a piece of data and the data is not in the processor’s own cache, and it has to go out to memory. When it goes out to memory there is a huge latency impact.

So these would be the tenets of Ultraviolet design [more reliable memory, less communications latency, more communications bandwidth, better load balancing, and less memory latency]. Say you have an application that is topping out at 128 processors, because it is bottlenecking on communications latency. This chip we’re designing is going to drastically reduce latency, which will now allow this application to run on more processors. Or, if you’re still running that same application on 128 processors, you should perform better and create less heat.

Caption for home page image: A view from the top: Bridges connect nodes of the 20-node SGI Altix supercomputer housed at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility.

Home page image courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center/Tom Trower

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