As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, I’m a sucker for big iron. You know, the stuff where you measure power in megawatts, machine room floor space in tens of thousands of square feet, DRAM in terabytes and… Well, you get the idea. It’s just cool, and big iron enables us to solve problems we simply can’t solve any other way. A jar of termites just isn’t the same as power saw, though both can make a lot of sawdust.
Years ago, back in 1984, Brian Reid (no relation) observed that “The same feeling that you get when you first run some code on a Cray, that feeling of almost limitless power, can be had much more cheaply with a Milwaukee worm drive saw with a good carbide blade.” Ohhh, you gotta love that feeling!
Joking aside, at any moment, big iron, high-end computing is most accurately defined by its impact – those computing systems with transformative power to enable breakthrough scientific discoveries, ensure defense preeminence and maintain international competitiveness. The English scientist Humphrey Davy could well have been speaking about high-end computing when he said:
Nothing tends so much to the advancement of knowledge as the application of a new instrument. The native intellectual powers of men in different times are not so much the causes of the different success of their labors, as the peculiar nature of the means and artificial resources in their possession.
In a phrase – success accrues to the talented who have access to the most powerful tools, those needed to solve critical scientific and public policy problems. We're talking big, Big, BIG iron, folks.
Some of these problems will require the coupling of models from multiple disciplines to understand the complex interplay of many forces, all subject to real-time constraints. For example, in hurricane preparedness, multidisciplinary computations must fuse models of the ocean and atmosphere (for weather prediction and damage assessment), transportation systems (for evacuation and recovery), telecommunication system structure and use (for public and government usage patterns) and social dynamics (for predicting social response).
Similarly, multilevel models of biological processes will be necessary to understand the complex interplay of disease heritability and environmental impact. Constructing a de novo, predictive model of a biological organism is multiple orders of magnitude beyond our current capabilities. However, an accurate computational model of even a single cell could save trillions of dollars in drug testing and would allow us to accelerate the development of new drugs that could be tailored to maximize efficacy and minimize toxicity.
Big Iron Jokes
So, in the spirit of Jeff Foxworthy and “You might be a redneck if ... (I grew up in the Ozarks, and we can poke fun at one another, but you shouldn't.); I offer the following test of your true love for big iron and its transformative power. You might be a big system geek if …
- Your machine room is naked eye visible from low earth orbit. (This is a nod to Mark Seager, who wanted a file system visible from space. We have them now, from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.)
- Inside, you need binoculars to see the other end of your machine room.
- You think a $2M cluster is a nice, single user development platform.
- You order storage systems and analysts issue “buy” orders for disk stocks.
- You measure system network connectivity in hundreds of kilometers of cable/fiber.
- You dream about cooling systems and wonder when fluorinert will make a comeback.
- You telephone the local nuclear power plant before you boot your system.
- You’re already thinking about exaflops.