August 2005
The Coming Era of Low Power, High-Performance Computing — Trends, Promises, and Challenges
Jose Castanos, George Chiu, Paul Coteus, Alan Gara, Manish Gupta, Jose Moreira, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center


In Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, Lemuel Gulliver traveled to various nations. One nation he traveled to, called Lilliput, was a country that consisted of weak pygmies. Another nation, called Brobdingnag, was that of mighty giants. When we build a supercomputer with thousands to more than hundreds of thousands of chips, is it better to choose a few mighty and powerful Brobdingnagian processors, or is it better to start from many Lilliputian processors to achieve the same computational capability? To answer this question, let us trace the evolution of computers.

The first general purpose computer, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator), was publicly disclosed in 1946. It took 200 microseconds to perform a single addition and it was built with 19,000 vacuum tubes. The machine was enormous, 30 m long, 2.4 m high and 0.9 m wide. Vacuum tubes had a limited lifetime and had to be replaced often. The system consumed 200 kW. ENIAC cost the US Ordnance Department $486,804.22.

In December 1947, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley at Bell Laboratories invented a new switching technology called the transistor. This device consumed less power, occupied less space, and was made more reliable than those of vacuum tubes. Impressed by these attributes, IBM built its first transistor based computer called Model 604 in 1953. By early 1960, transistor technology became ubiquitous. Further drive towards lower power, less space, higher reliability, and lower cost resulted in the invention of integrated circuits in 1959 by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments. Kilby made his first integrated circuit in germanium. Robert Noyce at Fairchild used a planar process to make connections of components within a silicon integrated circuit in early 1959, which became the foundation of all subsequent generations of computers. In 1966, IBM shipped the System/360 all-purpose mainframe computer made of integrated circuits.

Within the transistor circuit families, the most powerful transistor technology was the bipolar junction transistor (BJT) rather than the CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) transistor . However, compared to CMOS transistors, the bipolar ones, using the fastest ECL (emitter coupled logic) circuit, cost more to build, had a lower level of integration, and consumed more power. As a result, the semiconductor industry moved en masse to CMOS in early 1990s. From then on, the CMOS technology became the entrenched technology, and supercomputers were built with the fastest CMOS circuits. This picture lasted until about 2002 where CMOS power and power density rose dramatically to the point that they exceeded those of the corresponding bipolar numbers in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, there was no lower power technology lying in wait to diffuse the crisis. Thus, we find ourselves again at a crossroad to build the next generation supercomputer. According to the “traditional” view, the way to build the fastest and largest supercomputer is to use the fastest microprocessor chips as the building block. The fastest microprocessor is in turn built upon the fastest CMOS switching technology that is available to the architect at the time the chip is designed. This line of thought is sound provided that there are no other constraints to build supercomputers. However, in the real world there are many constraints (heat, component size, etc.) that make this reasoning unsound.

In the mean time, portable devices such as PDAs, cellphones, and laptop computers, developed since the 1990’s, all require low power CMOS technology to maximize the battery recharge interval. In 1999, IBM foresaw the looming power crisis and asked the question whether we could architect supercomputers using low power, low frequency, and inexpensive (Lilliputian) embedded processors to achieve a better collective performance than using high power, high frequency (Brobdingnagian) processors. While this approach has been successfully utilized for special purpose machines such as the QCDOC supercomputer, this counter-intuitive proposal was a significant departure from the traditional approach to supercomputer designs. However, the drive toward lower power and lower cost remained a constant theme throughout.

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Reference this article
Castanos, J., Chiu, G., Coteus, P., Gara, A., Gupta, M., Moreira, J. "Lilliputians of Supercomputing Have Arrived!," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 3, August 2005. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2005/08/lilliputians-of-supercomputing-have-arrived/

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