Market phase transitions have a tendency to be incredibly disruptive to market participants. A company or market segment used to be the “alpha wolf” can suddenly find themselves an outsider in a short time. Look at how quickly Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry) went from industry darling to laggard after Apple’s iPhone transformed the phone market.
Something similar is happening in the high performance computing (HPC) world (colloquially known as supercomputers). Built to do the highly complex calculations needed to simulate complex physical phenomena, HPC was, for years, the “Formula One” of the computing world. New memory, networking, and processor technologies oftentimes got their start in HPC, as it was the application that was most in need of pushing the edge (and had the cash to spend on exotic new hardware to do it).
The use of GPUs (graphical processing units) outside of games, for example, was a HPC calling card. NVIDIA’s CUDA framework which has helped give it such a lead in the AI semiconductor race was originally built to accelerate the types of computations that HPC could benefit from.
The success of Deep Learning as the chosen approach for AI benefited greatly from this initial work in HPC, as the math required to make deep learning worked was similar enough that existing GPUs and programming frameworks could be adapted. And, as a result, HPC benefited as well, as more interest and investment flowed into the space.
But, we’re now seeing a market transition. Unlike with HPC which performs mathematical operations requiring every last iota of precision on mostly dense matrices, AI inference works on sparse matrices and does not require much precision at all. This has resulted in a shift in industry away from software and hardware that works for both HPC and AI and towards the much larger AI market specifically.
Couple that with the recent semiconductor shortage (making it harder and more expensive to build HPC system with the latest GPUs) and the fact that research suggests some HPC calculations are more efficiently simulated with AI methods than actually run (in the same way that NVIDIA now uses AI to take a game rendered at a lower resolution and simulate what it would look like at a higher resolution more effectively than actually rendering the game at a higher resolution natively), I think we’re beginning to see traditional HPC shift from “Formula One of computing” to increasingly the “odd one out”.
The HPC community is used to being first, and we always considered ourselves as the F1 racing team of computing. We invent the turbochargers and fuel injection and the carbon fiber and then we put that into more general purpose vehicles, to use an analogy. I worry that the HPC community has sort of taken the backseat when it comes to AI and is not leading the charge. Like you, I’m seeing a lot of this AI stuff being led out of the hyperscalers and clouds. And we’ve got to find a way to take that back and carve our own use cases. There are a lot more HPC sites around the world than there are cloud sites, and we have got access to all a lot of data.
Trying to Do More Real HPC in an Increasingly AI World
Timothy Prickett Morgan | The Next Platform