Last year, the CSIRO's supercomputer was ranked as the 145th most powerful supercomputer in the world. Powered by NVIDIA's Tesla GPUs and constructed by Aussie company Xenon, the supercomputer is used is a fine example of the benefits of using GPUs for scientific discovery. but according to NVIDIA's GM of Tesla computing, Andy Keane, it's the current developments in the mobile processing space that will drive the next generation of supercomputers.
There's no doubt that the humble smartphone is one of the most rapidly advancing categories for computing power. In the past few years we've moved from basic smartphones to handsets with 1GHz processors at the end of 2009, dual core processors at the end of 2010 and we'll see quad core phones appear around the world by the end of this year. As Keane explained:
"A lot of the creativity that is happening is in [the mobile]market, a lot of energy is in there and there are a lot of competitors pushing it. And so Nvidia's using the way it competes, which is fast product cycles, fast improvements - the way GPUs have been competed - and now you're going to see that in cellphones, or rather than two to three upgrades in the base platform, you're going to see annual upgrades in the base platform. Dual core last year, quad core at the end of this year... Beyond that there's an aggressive roadmap.
And if you look at probably the end of next year, it's what you get in the notebook today. So now you're going to have that in your cellphone, and it's going to be 5 to 7 watts, it's going to be a PC experience on a mobile phone. And now you have ways of combining the different form factors. That to me is the part that's going to drive supercomputing. Because the power techniques, the CPU in there (which is ARM) - all of that is going to be brought into supercomputing. And it's going to solve the power issue, it's going to solve [questions like]'what are all the creative ways we can do things? Where are we going to replace all that investment we lost in the 90s?' It's all going to come out of the mobile industry."
Keane thinks that NVIDIA is exceptionally well placed to drive the new wave of supercomputing, off the back of their mobile Tegra chips and the combination of their GeForce GPU lineup.
"Is Tesla going to be the mainstream opportunity [for NVIDIA] , and the answer really is no. It's the same way we approach these very specific markets with the CPU. CPUs develop for the PCs and notebooks and the mainstream of the market, and then we take that basic technology to other markets.
So with the GeForce I get really powerful GPUs, and with Tegra in the future I'm going to get low powered CPUs, and then that combination is what we're going to take to supercomputing."
Unfortunately though, we're still a few years away before the CSIRO can start using Tegra based supercomputers to solve super complicated scientific problems in a heartbeat. But it's still worth considering the next time you slide a shiny new smartphone in your pocket that someday it will be the foundation for a supercomputer.