Preferred Citation: Ames, Karyn R., and Alan Brenner, editors Frontiers of Supercomputing II: A National Reassessment. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.

FPS Computing: A History of Firsts

FPS Computing:
A History of Firsts

Howard Thrailkill

Howard A. Thrailkill is President and CEO of FPS Computing. He received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and his master of science degree in the same field from the Florida Institute of Technology. He has received several patents for work with electronic text editing and computerized newspaper composition systems. For the past 20 years, he has held successively more responsible management positions with a variety of high-technology and computer companies, including General Manager of two divisions of Harris Corporation, President of Four-Phase Systems, Inc., Corporate Vice President of Motorola, Inc., and President and CEO of Saxpy Computer Corporation.

I suspect that a significant number of you in this audience were introduced to high-performance computing on an FPS-attached processor of some type. That technology established our company's reputation as a pioneer and an innovator, and it has a profound effect on the evolution of supercomputing technology. For the purposes of this session, I have been asked to discuss a pioneering product whose failure interrupted a long and successful period of growth for our company.

Pioneers take risks. Such was the case with our T-Series massively parallel computer, which was announced in 1985 with considerable fanfare and customer interest. It was the industry's first massively parallel machine that promised hypercube scalability and peak power in


the range of multiple GFLOPS (i.e., 109 floating-point operations per second). Regrettably, it was not a successful product.

Before presenting a T-Series "postmortem," I would like to retrace some history. FPS Computing, formerly known as Floating Point Systems, is a 20-year-old firm with a strong tradition of innovation. In 1973, we introduced the first floating-point processor for minicomputers and, in 1976, the first array processor—the FPS 120B. That was followed in 1981 by the first 64-bit minisupercomputer, the FPS 164, and by the FPS 264 in 1985; both enjoyed widespread acceptance. Buoyed by those successes, FPS then failed to perceive a fundamental shift in the direction of minisupercomputer technology: the shift toward the UNIX software environment and architectures with tightly coupled vector and scalar processors.

Other companies correctly recognized that shift and introduced competitive machines, which stalled our rapid growth. We responded with heavy investment in our T-Series machine, a radically new product promising extraordinary peak performance. It never lived up to its promise, and it is interesting to understand why.

First, a small company like FPS lacked the resources to absorb comfortably a mistake costing a few tens of millions of dollars. We simply overreached our resources.

Second, we failed to recognize that our software system, based on Occam, could never compete with the widespread acceptance of UNIX. I had not yet joined FPS at the time, and I recall my reading the T-Series announcement and becoming concerned that I knew so little about this new software environment. Clearly, I was not alone. In retrospect, this miscalculation crippled the product from the outset.

Third, the machine exhibited unbalanced performance even when its software shortcomings were overlooked. Highly parallel portions of an application code could be hand tuned and impressive speeds achieved. However, portions of the code that did not yield to such treatment ran very slowly. Too often we were limited to the speed of a single processor, and performance also suffered from the inefficiencies of message passing in our distributed-memory subsystem. The complexity of I/O with our hypercube architecture exacerbated the problem.

Fourth, we went to market with very little applications software. This deficiency was never overcome because our tedious programming environment did not encourage porting of any significant existing codes.

Finally, we entered a market that was much too small to justify our product development expenditures. While some talented researchers achieved impressive performance in a small number of special-purpose


applications, users wanted broader capabilities even in networked environments.

I have been asked to relate the lessons we learned from this experience. Clearly, no $100 million company like FPS wanted to face the serious consequences of a market miscalculation like we experienced. We had counted on the T-Series as a primary source of revenue upon which we would maintain and build our position in the industry.

Among my first duties upon joining FPS was to assess the prospects for the T-Series to fulfill the needs of our customers and our company. My first conversations with customers were not at all encouraging. They wanted standards-compliant systems that would integrate smoothly into their heterogeneous computing environment. They wanted balanced performance. While they valued the promise of parallel processing, they were reluctant to undertake the complexity of parallel programming, although a few users did justify the effort simply to avail themselves of the machine's raw speed. They also wanted a comprehensive library of third-party application codes.

Unfortunately, we saw no way to meet the needs of a large enough number of customers with the T-Series. Thus, we suspended further investment in the T-Series perhaps 45 days after I joined FPS.

Having made that decision, a senior representative from FPS was dispatched to meet individually with every T-Series customer and reconcile our commitments to them. It was a step that cost us a lot of money. With our commitment to continuing as a long-term participant in the high-performance computing business, we believed that nothing less than the highest standards of business ethics and fairness to our customers would be acceptable. That painful process was completed before we turned our attention to redirecting our product strategy.

We then took steps to move back into the mainstream of high-performance computing with our announcement in late 1988 of a midrange UNIX supercomputer from FPS—the Model 500. An improved version, the Model 500EA, followed in 1989.

In the summer of 1990, FPS emerged again as an industry innovator with our announcement of Scalable Processor ARChitecture (SPARC) technology, licensed from Sun Microsystems, Inc., as the foundation for future generation supercomputers from FPS. With our concurrent announcement of a highly parallel Matrix Coprocessor, we also introduced the notion of integrated heterogeneous supercomputing. Integrated heterogeneous supercomputing features modular integration of multiple scalar, vector, and matrix processors within a single, standards-compliant


software environment. In our implementation, that software environment is to be an extended version of SunOS. We also announced an alliance with Canon Sales in Japan, a major market for our products.

FPS has made a major commitment to industry standards for high-performance computing—SPARC, SunOS (UNIX), network file system, high-performance parallel interface, and others. We believe we have a strong partner, Sun, in our corner now as we move forward.

We are reassured as we visit customers and observe SPARC technology we have licensed from Sun enjoying such widespread acceptance. Our joint sales and marketing agreement with Sun has also served us well since its announcement in June 1990. We support their sales activities and they support ours.

We will be announcing shortly further steps toward standardization in the software environment we make available to customers. Our compiler will soon have a full set of Cray Research and Digital Fortran extensions, along with a set of ease-of-use tools.

Our customers seem to be receptive to our product strategy, as dozens of machines are now installed in major universities, research laboratories, and industrial sites around the world. Interestingly, about one-third of them are in Japan.

We believe we have defined a new direction for high-speed computing—integrated heterogeneous supercomputing. Our current implementation is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1.
FPS 500 series integrated heterogeneous supercomputing.


As you may observe from the figure, up to eight high-speed SPARC RISC processors may be plugged in independently to run as a shared-memory multiprocessor. Conveniently, all of our installed customers can be upgraded to SPARC and run SunOS software in this modular fashion.

This high-speed SPARC RISC multiprocessor architecture can be augmented by modular addition of multiple vector and matrix coprocessors. The system configuration can be tailored to the application at hand. As technology advances, new processors can modularly replace current versions, essentially obsoleting the industry's tradition of "forklift" replacement of the entire supercomputer when upgrades are undertaken.

While vector processing from FPS and others is a familiar technology, matrix coprocessing may be a new concept to you. We consider this technology as applied parallel processing. FPS matrix coprocessors, currently implemented with up to 84 parallel processing elements, attack the locality of computation present in the compute-intensive portions of many application codes that address big problems. Linear solvers, eigenvalue problems, fast Fourier transforms, and convolutions all involve many computations per data element, i.e., high locality. These portions of code run very fast on our machine, achieving sustained performance in the one- to three-GFLOPS range, and this performance can be achieved in the familiar SunOS software environment.

We believe we have now overcome the setbacks that the ill-fated T-Series dealt to our company. We have returned to our roots in high-performance computing and are now moving forward and building upon our notion of integrated heterogeneous supercomputing as implemented in our current supercomputer product line. Innovation is once again driving FPS, but we are now much more sensitive to customer demands.


FPS Computing: A History of Firsts

Preferred Citation: Ames, Karyn R., and Alan Brenner, editors Frontiers of Supercomputing II: A National Reassessment. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1994 1994.