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Future Supercomputing Environments:
Heterogeneous Systems

Over the last 20 years we have seen a gradual evolution from scalar sequential hardware to vector processing and more recently to parallel processing. No clear consensus has emerged on an ideal previous hit architecture next hit. The trend to vector and parallel processing has been driven by the


computational needs of certain problems, but the resulting systems are then inappropriate for other classes of problems. It is unlikely that in the near term this situation will be resolved, and indeed one can anticipate further generations of even more specialized processor systems. There is a general consensus that a good computing environment would at least provide access to the following resources:

• scalar processors (e.g., workstations),

• vector processors,

• parallel machines (SIMD and/or MIMD),

• visualization systems,

• mass-storage systems, and

• interfaces to networks.

This leads us to the last topic and what in the long run is probably the most important: heterogeneous systems, heterogeneous environments, and the importance of combining a spectrum of computing resources.

There is a simple way of avoiding the specialization problem described above. The key is to develop seamless, integrated heterogeneous computing environments. What are the requirements for such systems? Obviously, high-speed communication is paramount—that means both high bandwidth and low latency. Because different types of machines are present, a seamless environment therefore requires support for data transformations between the different kinds of hardware. Equally important, as I've argued from previous experience with single machines, is to try to support wherever possible shared-memory concepts. Ease of use will require load balancing. If there are three Connection Machines on that system, one should be able to load-balance them between the demands of different users. Shared file systems should be supported, and so on. And all of this should be done in the context of portability of the user's code because the user may not always design his codes on these systems initially. Obviously, adopting standards is critical.

Such an environment will present to the user all of the resources needed for any application: fast scalar, vector, and parallel processors; graphics supercomputers; disk farms; and interfaces to networks. All of these units would be interconnected by a high-bandwidth, low-latency switch, which would provide transparent access between the systems. System software would present a uniform, global view of the integrated resource, provide a global name space or a shared memory, and control load balancing and resource allocation.

The hardware technology now allows such systems to be built. Two key ingredients are the recent development of fast switching systems and the development of high-speed connection protocols and hardware


implementing these protocols standardized across a wide range of vendors. We illustrate with two examples.

Recently, Carnegie Mellon University researchers designed and built a 100-megabit-per-second switch called Nectar, which supports point-to-point connections between 32 processors (Arnould et al. 1989). A gigabit-per-second version of Nectar is in the design stage. Simultaneously, various supercomputer and graphics workstation vendors have begun to develop high-speed (800-megabit-per-second) interfaces for their systems. Combining these approaches, we see that at the hardware level it is already possible to begin assembling powerful heterogeneous systems. As usual, the really tough problems will be at the software level.

Several groups are working on aspects of the software problem. In our own group at CAPP, we have developed, as discussed in the previous section, a simple, heterogeneous environment consisting of a Connection Machine CM-2 and a Stardent Titan graphics superworkstation (Compagnoni et al. 1991). The Titan is connected with the CM-2 through the CM-2 back end, rather than through the much slower front-end interface that is usually used for such connectivity. The object-oriented, high-level Stardent AVS visualization system is then made directly available to the CM-2 user, allowing access to graphical objects computed on the CM-2 in real time, while the CM-2 is freed to pursue the next phase of its computation. Essentially, this means that to the user, AVS is available on the CM-2. Porting AVS directly to the CM-2 would have been a formidable and pointless task. Furthermore, the CM-2 is freed to perform the computations that it is best suited for, rather than wasting time performing hidden surface algorithms or polygon rendering. These are precisely the sorts of advantages that can be realized in a heterogeneous system.

Looking to the future, we believe that most of the research issues of heterogeneous computing will have been solved by the late 1990s, and in that time frame, we would expect to see evolving heterogeneous systems coming into widespread use wherever a variety of distinct computational resources is present. In the meantime, one can expect to see more limited experiments in heterogeneous environments at major research computation laboratories, such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and the NSF supercomputer centers.


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