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High-Performance Computing in the 1990s

Sheryl L. Handler

After receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard University, Sheryl L. Handler founded PACE/CRUX, a domestic and international economic development consulting firm. Clients ranged from biotechnology and telecommunications companies to the World Bank, the U.S. State Department, and numerous other agencies and companies. She was President of PACE/CRUX for 12 years.

In June 1983, Dr. Handler founded Thinking Machines Corporation and within three years introduced the first massively parallel high-performance computer system, the Connection Machine supercomputer. The Connection Machine was the pioneer in a new generation of advanced computing and has become the fastest and most cost-effective computer for large, data-intensive problems on the market. Thinking Machines is now the second largest supercomputer manufacturer in America.

Supercomputing has come to symbolize the leading edge of computer technology. With the recognition of its importance, supercomputing has been put on the national agenda in Japan and Europe. Those countries are actively vying to become the best. But a national goal in supercomputing has not yet been articulated for America, which means that all the necessary players—the designers, government laboratories, software developers, students, and corporations—will not be inspired to direct their energies toward a big and common goal. This is potentially dangerous.


Supercomputing represents the ability to dream and to execute with precision. What is a country without dreams? What is a country without the ability to execute its own ideas better than anyone else?

What drew me into the supercomputing industry was an awe, an almost kid-like fascination with it. Supercomputing is a tool that allows you to

contemplate huge and complex topics
or zero in on the smallest details
while adjusting the meter of time
or the dimensions of space.
Or with equal ease, to build up big things
or to take them apart.

To me, there is poetry in our business and a big business in this poetry. In addition, supercomputing is now getting sexy. I recently saw a film generated on the Connection Machine[*] system that was really sensual. The color, shapes, and movement had their own sense of life.

It is very important to this country to take the steps to be the leader in this field, both in the present and in the future. How can we do this? In short, we must be bold: set our sights high and be determined and resourceful in how we get there. Big steps must be taken. But the question is, by whom?

Some look at our industry and economic structure and say that big steps are not possible. Innovation requires new companies, which require venture capitalists, which require quick paybacks, which only leaves time for small, incremental improvements, etc. In fact, big steps can be taken, and taken successfully, if one has the will and the determination.

Sometimes these big steps can be taken by a single organization. At other times, it requires collective action. I would like to look at an example of each.

It is generally agreed that the development of the Connection Machine supercomputer was a big step. Some argued at the time that it was a step in the wrong direction, but all agreed that it was a bold and decisive step. How did such a product come about? It came about because the will to take a big step came before the product itself. We looked around us in the early 1980s and saw a lot of confusion and halfway steps. We didn't know what the answer was, but we were sure it wasn't the temporizing that we saw around us.


So we organized to get back to basics. We gathered the brightest people we could find and gave them only one request: find the right big step that needed to be taken. We needed people whose accomplishments were substantial, so their egos weren't dependent on everything being done their way.

In addition to Danny Hillis, we were fortunate to have two other prominent computer architects who had their own designs. Eventually even their enthusiasm for the Connection Machine became manifest, and then we knew we were onto something good. I thought of this initial phase of the company as building a team of dreamers.

Then we added another dimension to the company—we built a team of doers. And they were as good at "doing" things as the theorists were at dreaming. This team was headed by Dick Clayton, who had vast experience at Digital Equipment Corporation as Vice President of Engineering. His responsibilities ranged from building computers to running product lines. When he arrived at Thinking Machines, we put a sign on his door: "Vice President of Reality." And he was.

So we had the dreamers and the doers. Then there was a third phase—coupling the company to the customer in a fundamental way.

We built a world-class scientific team that was necessary to develop the new technology. But as you know, many companies keep a tight reign on R&D expenses. We viewed R&D as the fuel for growth, not just a necessary expense that had to be controlled.

We had a powerful opportunity here. Our scientific team became a natural bridge to link this new technology to potential customers. These scientists and engineers who had developed the Connection Machine supercomputer were eager to be close to customers to understand this technology from a different perspective and, therefore, more fully. Our early customers had a strong intuition that the Connection Machine system was right for them. But the ability to work hand-in-hand with the very people who had developed the technology enabled our users to get a jump on applications. As a result, our customers were able to buy more than just the product: they were buying the company. The strategy of closely coupling our scientists and our customers has become deeply embedded in the corporate structure. In fact, it is so important to us that we staff our customer support group with applications specialists who have advanced degrees.

So the creation of the Connection Machine supercomputer is an example of a big step that was taken by a single organization. In the years since, massively parallel supercomputers have become part of everyone's supercomputing plans. A heterogeneous environment, with vector


supercomputers, massively parallel supercomputers, and workstations, is becoming the norm at the biggest, most aggressive centers.

And now another big step needs to be taken collectively by many of the players in the computer industry. Right now, there is no good way for a scientist to write a program that runs unchanged on all of these platforms. We have not institutionalized truly scalable languages, languages that allow code to move gracefully up and down the computing hierarchy. And the next generation of software is being held up as a result. (If you don't believe that this is a problem, let me ask you the following question: how many of you would be willing to install a meter on your supercomputers that displays the year in which the currently running code was originally written?)

How long can we wait until we give scientists and programmers a stable target environment that takes advantage of the very best hardware that the 1990s have to offer? We already know that such languages are possible.

Fortran 90 is an example. It is known to run efficiently on massively parallel supercomputers such as the Connection Machine computer. It is a close derivative of the Control Data Fortran that is known to run efficiently on vector supercomputers. It is known to run efficiently on coarse-grain parallel previous hit architectures next hit, such as Alliant. And while it has no inherent advantages on serial workstations, it has no particular disadvantages, either.

Is Fortran 90 the right scalable language for the 1990s? We don't know that for sure, either. But it is proof that scalable languages are there to be had. Languages that operate efficiently across the range of hardware will be those that will be most used in the 1990s. It is hard for this step to come solely from the vendors. Computer manufacturers don't run mixed shops. My company does not run any Crays, and, to the best of my knowledge, John Rollwagen doesn't run any Connection Machine systems. But many shops run both.

So there is a step to be taken. A big step. It will take will. It will take a clear understanding that things need to be better than they are today—and that they won't get better until the step gets taken. That is where we started with the Connection Machine computer, with the clear conviction that things weren't good enough and the determination to take a big step to make them good enough. And as the computer industry matures and problems emerge that affect a wide segment of the industry, we should come together. It works. I recommend it.


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