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Embedding HPC: Making super-computing happen

Posted: 15 Dec 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:High performance computing  fluid dynamics  Fast Fourier Transform 

High performance computing (HPC) refers to running large, compute-intensive applications to solve complex numerical algorithms usually used in areas such as image processing and simulation. Some HPC applications include computational fluid dynamics, weather modelling, and circuit simulation. Trying to get a computer to emulate something in the real world requires a tremendous amount of computational power. Historically, if you were to actually see a supercomputer, you would find it housed in a large facility with rows and racks of blinking lights, heavy air conditioning, and maybe even a water-based cooling system.

Today, with the introduction of more compact and more powerful embedded processors, embedded systems are becoming HPC capable. In the evolution of processors, for many years we were following Moore's Law. That is, processors were doubling in clock speed and gate count every 18 months or so. But lately, processor speeds haven't moved from two gigahertz to six, seven, or eight gigahertz. Instead, what we're seeing is the number of multiple cores being expanded. There's a shift from the evolution of the individual processor "cell" along the lines of Moore's Law to the evolution of a fabric or "organism" composed of multiple processing cells. As a result, the latest laptops have four- or even eight-core processors, and perhaps some other type of graphics processor built into them. Figure 1 depicts the shift in evolution from processor core technology to processor fabrics.

Figure 1: The shift in evolution from processor core technology to processor fabrics.

Traditionally, we associate embedded systems with microcontrollers. These systems conduct basic functions such as blinking lights, turning on relays, checking to make sure the thermostat is on, or turning on the air conditioner. But with the recent advances in computing platforms, it's now possible to run far more sophisticated software, enabling exciting new applications. For the U.S. military, HPC enables airborne vehicles to navigate without pilots. In the automotive sector, HPC serves as a key building block in the development of anti-collision systems. These systems can actually look out over the road, collect data on what's going on around the vehicle, disengage the cruise control, or sound an alert to the driver, depending on the severity of the event.

HPC is all about data processing using complex numerical algorithms to convert continuous real-time sensor data streams into images or actionable information. For home security systems, imagine a security system that actually recognises you, even if you forget to turn off the alarm, and says "I have a positive ID that it's you entering the house," and therefore it does not sound the alarm. In the healthcare industry, medical diagnostic imaging is a rapidly growing field. Large MRI and CT body imaging scanners take pictures and try to identify problem areas inside the body. Most of this is done by image processing—electronic signals collected by the scanners processed and formulated into an image that can highlight a problem area. In the past, a patient would wait a week for results; it's now available the next day. The medical industry is interested in making HPC devices even more portable, and possibly using them in the operating room as real-time tools to help guide surgery.

Scientists on the University of Manchester's SpiNNaker (spiking neural network architecture) project are modelling the human brain to study the complex interactions and fault tolerances of neurons. They're interconnecting 1,000 processor cores to model a million neurons, which is still only one one-thousandth of the human brain, which has about 100 billion neurons. Work like this would not be possible if HPC hadn't evolved so quickly in the last couple of years.

Processor advances
All of this is possible due to advancements in processing hardware. What we're seeing now is what the military and aerospace community call commercial off-the-shelf or COTS, which usually connotes commodity-type devices that are capable of high-performance computing. Companies like Intel, Freescale, NVIDIA, Xilinx, and TI are creating an explosion of new devices targeted at HPC applications. Intel recently introduced its new multi-core Sandy Bridge class of devices (2nd Generation iCore processors) with Advanced Vector (math) eXtensions called AVX. In the same timeframe, Intel has also introduced its new Many Integrated Cores (MIC) processor architecture. Code named "Knights Corner", this architecture supports the interconnection of 50 Larrabee class cores. Freescale recently introduced a new generation of high-end multi-core Power PC chips called the QorIQ AMP Series, with a re-introduction of an improved AltiVec vector processing accelerator. The new QorIQ architecture can support up to 24 virtual cores per chip.

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