It's gratifying to make a computer perform to its specifications. Some of us have made a career of it in the discipline of high performance computing (HPC).
"The most constant difficulty in contriving the engine has arisen from the desire to reduce the time in which the calculations were executed to the shortest which is possible." – Charles Babbage (1834)
I find this quote from Babbage, a 19th century polymath, at once endearing, encouraging and amusing. Babbage developed the first mechanical device for doing calculations i.e. a mechanical computer, which he named "The Difference Engine". I like the quote and I use it in talks because it illustrates the fact that from the moment people created machines to calculate they wanted them to do so faster. Babbage's Difference Engine was capable of one calculation every six seconds. Today, over 180 years in the future, where our electronic machines have the capability to do trillions of operations per second, we are preoccupied with the same endeavor — speed — how to coax it from our machines, how to use it and how to value it.
There is something intoxicating about speed. Fast cars or fast planes and fast computers have something in common. They are intricately powerful and beautifully engineered devices and there is a deep satisfaction in controlling them to harness their capability. It's gratifying to make a computer perform to its specifications and its getting more and more difficult to do so. Some of us have made a career of it in the discipline of high performance computing (HPC). When our applications run faster they produce information more quickly and they allow their human attendants to make more rapid and better informed decisions.
There are several noteworthy trends in HPC that are salient in a review of the recent past. I recently gave a keynote talk in Dubai at the EAGE meeting on HPC in the Upstream. I made observations about HPC and discussed the impact on applications in the energy industry. Some of the topics I discussed were the continuing trend in on-processor parallelism, the emergence of new architectures, the growing difficulty of effective parallel computing, the lagging performance of legacy codes and the emergence of computational science as a discipline.
Vincent Natoli is the president and founder of Stone Ridge Technology. He is a computational physicist with 30 years experience in the field of high-performance computing. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees from MIT, a PhD in Physics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Technology Management from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
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