Distinguished engineer at ARM Research and high performance computing specialist Eric Van Hensbergen has warned that Britain, Europe, and even the USA are not taking supercomputing seriously enough – and that it should be considered a national resource.
ARM recently partnered with Fujitsu and Japanese research organisation RIKEN to power the 64-bit Post-K supercomputer. Van Hensbergen is working on the project that although delayed, will mean ARM architecture is behind exascale computing in the near future.
Supercomputing capability tends to be regarded as a kind of arms race, and Van Hensbergen believes that there is merit to this claim.
“There’s a huge advantage to having a well-trained domestic workforce,” he told Computerworld UK at the ARM Research summit in Cambridge. “To be honest, and Europe is a victim of this, a lot of computing has ended up dominated by US players.
“Europeans are essentially run out of the business from a manufacturing perspective – I think that comes at a disadvantage, because if you want to get to a state where you’re building for economic or security reasons, you’re starting from zero.”
Earlier this year ARM was acquired by Softbank for £24.3 billion, to bolster the Japanese conglomerate’s share of the internet of things and data centre markets. Softbank has publicly committed to, at the very least, leaving the funding for existing projects unchanged, and across the business there is a chance of reinvestment where profits previously had to be reported to shareholders.
The fact that Softbank acquired ARM in the first place, along with the Post-K supercomputer development currently underway in Japan, suggests there may be differing attitudes to HPC research compared to other regions.
Van Hensbergen says Japan’s approach to supercomputing is one that’s worth emulating.
“In Japan, with the previous generation K Computer, at one point they were going to cancel the project,” he explained. “They rented out an hour of primetime TV and had 10 of their Nobel laureates get on and explain why it’s important for Japan, and then they held a national referendum.
“Everybody knew what it was and everybody understood how important it was. You just don’t see that kind of exposure and understanding elsewhere.”
Van Hensbergen suggests that in the west, there’s a tendency to dismiss supercomputing as wasteful spending that the government makes to prop up academics.
“That’s really not the case,” he said. “It’s important that it be directed and focused, because there are real societal impacts. These national infrastructures are not stunts to say ‘the US is better than China, or Europe, or Japan’ or anything like that – it really is about the future of science, innovation and economies in these countries, as well as supporting a high-tech workforce, which is incredibly important.
“I wish there was more understanding of that within the public. I feel like the US and Europe have been lagging a little because it’s been deprioritised. It’s not one of these things people want to talk about in the public eye, and I think that’s a shame because I think so much depends on it.
“I’d much rather see us prioritise supercomputers versus war – it’s not as much fun to talk about as Donald Trump’s hairdo but it ends up being a critical piece of our national policy. It’s one of those things that’s incredibly difficult for an individual company to go off and do on their own. You need a national agenda, or a multi-country agenda behind it to accomplish something substantial.
An example Van Hensbergen cites is in the real-world effects of weather simulations, particularly in the move from petascale to exascale computing where the extra power provides more accurate predictions and quicker. Imagine, he says, knowing a hurricane is going to hit and actively being able to alert people who will be directly affected – or not knowing.
“You can say the same sort of things for all sorts of scientific discoveries,” he says. “And you want to have local supercomputing to support your local industry, because it will mean more efficient batteries, more efficient combustion engines, more efficient solar panels – it is a national resource.”
For his part, Van Hensbergen believes that ARM architecture could help regions like Britain and the rest of Europe catch up to the US, Japan and in particular, China. But they will need to take it as seriously to come even close.
China currently has the top two fastest supercomputers in the world according to the Top 500 - the Tianhe-2 in second place, and the Sunway TaihuLight in first. Europe does have 37 systems in the top 100, with two in the top 10. The US has four supercomputers in the top 10 and 31 in the top 100.
“China has really mastered it,” he says. “They’ve been dumping money on this problem and gone from no domestic capability to being number one in a really short period of time. I’m not suggesting we need to spend the same amount as they do, but I feel like directed, focused funding could really help catch up, and indeed, beat them if we really set our minds to it.”