Monday, December 23, 2019

Denver and SC19

I spent a week in Denver recently, attending the Supercomputing 2019 conference. This is something we do every year; it is part vendor meetings, part job training.

Naha airport has square windows toward the runway that make for a neat natural frame if you manage to catch a moment without people sitting or standing in front of them. This is Ritsukos idea by the way; I just copied her.

The conference itself has both academic research and practical workshops, but also a very large exhibition area and hundreds of companies large and small descending on the conference to meet customers and each other. I'm not too interested in the academic part, though it can be fun to follow. The tutorials and workshops are aimed at HPC professionals. They cover cluster management, teaching parallel programming and HPC, networking, user group meetings for popular tools and so on. Very useful and very interesting.

The conference is held at the Colorado Convention Center. It's right in the middle of the city, a couple of blocks from the main walking street.

The exhibition is like a car show for HPC computing. An enormous space filled with giant booths from Intel, DDN, IBM, AMD and so on down to small desk-size spots in the back with startups and highly specialised businesses - a Japanese company that only does pipe connectors for rack water-cooling systems, for instance. Many corporate visitors attend the conference only for the exhibition.

Immersion water cooling displays are always fun. You can see the liquid boiling away from the CPU in this image. It's clear that water cooling in some form is going to be mandatory for most high-performance clusters in the near future; Racks are getting denser and CPUs and GPUs more power hungry. Air is just not enough any longer.

Yes, AMD had juggling presenters in their booth this year. AMD is one of the big winners in HPC nowadays; they certainly deserve a bit of silliness.

Surrounding this conference is a cluster of vendor events. All the major companies organise their own meeting facilities, parties and even mini-conferences in hotels and other venues around the main event. If you are a customer this is the place to meet with your suppliers. You can get one-on-one meetings, get future trends and product roadmaps and generally figure out which direction you will want to go in the future.

Denver in the morning.


As many of these companies are very large, and as this event is quite important, they all tend to throw parties, serve lunch and organise other events to get people through their doors. Intel, for instance, runs an entire two-day developer conference every year right at the start of SC. The yearly DDN party is popular with younger visitors (leans towards loud music and dancing), while Mellanox has a "talk-show" and a live entertainer at their party.

Dell rented the Denver Hard Rock Cafe for their event. Like most events you can get a ticket by just asking for one at the booth. We picked the Dell and HP events over the others this year simply because the weather was cold (it started snowing this night) and these events were close by.

The final night there's always a big conference-wide party. It's usually held in a cool or special venue of some kind. This year it was in a military aircraft museum, right in the exhibition hangar. It was exciting — airplanes are cool technology! — but with a bit of a bad aftertaste; all this effort and all this ingenuity spent to kill other people.

Lots of cool-looking airplanes here.

The conference has a total of 15000 attendees; even though far from everyone attends the party you still need a large venue to hold so many people. Such as a large aircraft hangar for instance.

I wrote a whole section on trends and things; I doubt anybody reading this blog really cares, so I will summarize (just look at the pictures if it doesn't interest you):

The last days it started snowing. I haven't experienced winter weather for years so I really enjoyed it. 

AMD is beating Intel big time right now. They were everywhere on the trade floor, and a lot of new clusters are using their Rome CPU.  It has better price/performance, better power/performance and just plain better performance in absolute numbers than anything Intel has

ARM is starting to show up for real, with the absolutely insane Fujitsu A64FX cpu that's going to power Fugaku, Japans next supercomputer. 48 cores, 512 bit wide vector extensions and 32GB high bandwidth memory right on the package with a 1Tbit/s throughput.

This leaves Intel in a tough spot. AMD is leading them on CPUs and ARM is skulking in the wings. Once Moore's law is well and truly dead they'll likely end on roughly equal footing and Intels former dominance on CPUs may be permanently gone.

I went running, of course. It's a great antidote for jetlag, and a quick way for some sightseeing. Here an amusement park closed for the season.

Speaking of ARM, NVIDIA bought Mellanox (the maker of Infiniband tech) early this year, and are now partnering with ARM to build complete HPC server nodes with their own GPUs, CPUs and networking. They clearly no longer want to just act as a part supplier to system builders. But with NVIDIAs dominance in GPU computing this makes everyone else very nervous.

AMD has a GPU line already, and they are moving to counter NVIDIA with a GPU computing systems of their own. Intel does not, and they really, desperately need it especially as their CPU dominance is eroding. They announced a new GPU for computing with a lot of fanfare, but the word is the performance will be quite disappointing for this first generation.

Snowed-in scooters. The winter weather really got going the day we left. And we were lucky — just a couple days later Denver got completely snowed in with all flights cancelled. Two days earlier and 15000 attendees would have been unable to leave.

Interesting times. And a fun conference.


  1. I was not aware Mellanox was bought. Interesting times, indeed. Thanks for the summary!

    And, my opinion: Intel well deserves it for what they did back in AMD64 times to AMD - the fine they got for it was less than symbolic. But, I fear, Intel might still come back (the bad Intel, I mean; a reformed, clean one I don't mind).

    1. Hi Iustin! I agree; Intel has been too dominant for too long to be healthy. We need real competition - on X86 by AMD, But also between architectures with ARM (and, in the farther future, possibly RISC-V). For the same reasons we need solid competition to Nvidia; they are arguably even more dominant on GPGPUs than Intel has been on CPUs.


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