Asia's 'bright' HPC future will take time

Region's high-performance computing has promising future but it will take some time for Asia to catch up with the West, industry watchers say.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

news analysis Despite a declining share in the Top500 supercomputer list, Asia's high-performance computing (HPC) future remains "bright", according to industry watchers in the region. To catch up with its Western counterparts however, the region will require "some time".

Dennis Ang, Hewlett-Packard's Asia-Pacific and Japan general manager for HPC, noted that supercomputing or HPC in the region "has made continuous progress". Adoption across the region, he said in an e-mail interview, is rather broad-based.

"While we have seen higher adoption across high-end research institutes and universities in the past, there has been a change in the last couple of years with more uptake and high investments in HPC infrastructure from vertical industries," Ang explained, adding that the automotive and aerospace sectors were among the drivers of the new phenomenon.

"Over the next 12 to 18 months, we expect to see growth coming from companies that engage in Web hosting or building up cloud computing capabilities--both at a national level as well as for private and hybrid clouds," added Ang. "A successful example of commercializing HPC using cloud technologies is the Singapore-based Alatum [grid computing] service provided by SingTel using HP BladeSystem--the Alatum infrastructure [is] expected to list on the [upcoming] June Top500 [list]."

Concurring, Adesh Gupta, server platform marketing manager at Intel Asia-Pacific, said Asia "continues to grow in prominence" in terms of deployment of large high-performance clusters. In the recent past, there have been deployments of over 1,000 nodes in India, Australia and China.

"We continue to see future projects in the pipeline that would offer hundreds of teraflops of computing capability in a cluster," he added in an e-mail. "As [of] November 2008, there were 50 Asia-based supercomputers in the Top500 list [with] over 70 percent of the supercomputers [powered by] Intel architecture.

What was interesting, Gupta pointed out, was that 39 of the 50 supercomputer deployments in Asia were in 2008. "We are seeing [an] increase in HPC resources--capital, human talent--being deployed in mature countries and emerging economic superpowers in Asia."

Andreas Ryden, HPC sales leader at IBM's Systems & Technology Group, told ZDNet Asia there has been progress in the Asia-Pacific HPC landscape and "a steady growth in capacity of systems within the Asian agencies", with many investing in expertise and infrastructure for deeper research.

According to him, investments of Asian countries in the past have been mainly on smaller HPC systems with focus on developing expertise in application, software and ecosystem. "Big" HPC investments, he admitted, are still mainly government-related.

"Many countries in this region have national programs that need large capacity HPC infrastructure," said Ryden. "The future looks bright for supercomputing systems in the region.

HPC a victim of economic downturn
Meanwhile, the financial crisis has dampened the rollout of HPC in the region. Intel's Gupta reported that the economic downturn has delayed some projects in the enterprise sector, but sectors such as life sciences, universities and government continue to see deployment of clusters ranging from eight to 64 nodes, to larger scale rollouts of at least 1,000 nodes.

HP's Ang also acknowledged there has been "a bit of a slowdown" in implementations across the region due to the current economic situation. "This is particularly not surprising for large manufacturing-based countries like Japan and Korea which have been more affected by the global economic downturn than some others."

Japan's next-generation supercomputer, for instance, encountered a hiccup last month, when NEC announced it would withdraw its participation in the manufacturing phase of Japan's next-generation supercomputer project.

A check with Riken, the agency tasked to spearhead the development of Japan's next-generation supercomputer, revealed the agency is still gearing to roll out the initiative by 2012. "We are reviewing the plan so that we can achieve the initial target without NEC," Mitsuo Yokokawa, system development team leader of the Riken Next-Generation Supercomputer R&D Center, said in an e-mail.

An NEC spokesperson, noted in an e-mail that the company was still committed to supercomputing projects within Japan. Its recently upgraded Japanese Earth Simulator recorded "the world highest efficiency of 93.38 percent on the Linpack with a 122.4 teraflops Linpack score", bettering the best performer on the November 2008 Top500 list.

Asia's declining share in Top500 cause for concern?
In contrast to the picture of positive development, the number of Asia-based supercomputers in the Top500 list--a recognized ranking for global supercomputers--have declined in the last two years.

In November 2006, there were 79 systems from Asia on the list. That dropped to 72 in June 2007, and further down to 58 in November 2007. Last November, the number of machines from the region stood at 47, down marginally from 48 in June 2008.

While the Top500 list indeed is a good indicator of where the best systems in the world are based, it is "not 100 percent accurate" as there is an option for companies not to be listed, pointed out HP's Ang.

Intel's Gupta added that instead of focusing on the number of systems in the Top500, the industry should look at improvement in computing capability demonstrated by these Asia-based clusters. "If we look at the aggregate computing power for the deployments in 2006 [based on the] November 2006 listing, it is over 350 teraflops.

"The aggregate computing power for deployments in 2008 [based on the] November 2008 listing, is over 2,000 teraflops," he noted. "Clearly, 2008 saw an increase of [more than] six times over 2006 deployments."

Gupta continued: "Asian countries are putting in more resources to develop powerful supercomputers to solve complex problems. Mature economies such as Australia, Korea and Japan and emerging superpowers India and China would continue to invest in very large node clusters.

"All these nations can potentially compete with the top supercomputing countries in the world today."

Asia plays catch-up to Western regions
Still, it will be a while before Asia can dethrone its more illustrious supercomputing counterparts in the United States and Europe.

"HPC develops in parallel with the maturity of the market, especially in terms of the understanding of HPC and how to build [such clusters], skill sets, existing infrastructures, and even space constraints," HP's Ang said. "Asia still has a ways to go."

According to the NEC spokesperson, it will still take the region "some time to catch up" with North America and Europe as the landscape is fast-moving.

Intel's Gupta added more HPC resources are being assigned in universities, government institutions and public laboratories. "India and China have created national agendas for better research capabilities to solve complex problems associated with weather modeling, oil exploration, chemical and molecular research, biosciences, etc.

"It will take a few years for the supercomputers in India and China to catch up with their U.S. counterparts, but we feel that in the not too distant future, clusters delivering pentaflops of computing capability would emerge in India and China."

IBM's Ryden noted that investments in areas including basic applied research and nanotechnology, will help bridge the gap with the global counterparts.

"China has a vision of becoming an innovation-based economy with more impetus on services," he said. "There are ambitious plans in the making of petascale computing systems to enhance research in several research areas such as nanotechnology, life sciences and weather."

Ryden added: "With the larger national agenda and focus on research in many Asian countries, we will see a growth in large systems in this part of the region. Growth would be across the region with particular impetus from China, Taiwan, Australia and India."

Will the next Top500 list, expected to be released next week, reveal winners or losers in Asian supercomputing? Only time will tell.

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