Peronal Supercomputers - Kinda Missing the Point

I always found the term 'Supercomputer' to be a bit odd. The geeks, those who revel in exactitude, decided one day that they were going to build this computer that will out-compute all other computers. In my mind, one geek gets up out of his chair, puts on a cape and leotard, raises a fist in the air, and yells "Supercomputer!!!" It's a very childish moniker for a highly technical and difficult machine, a machine that typically is thousands of times faster than the modern PC. Just as an example, the IBM Roadrunner is the fastest supercomputer as of this writing. It is heterogeneous, meaning it involves cluster computers, where multiple computers are joined together to run processes together. Roadrunner has 3240 computers, each with 40 processing cores, working together to compute very quickly. PC laptops only recently acquired the ability to run on 2 cores. So, Roadrunner is the equivalent of around 100,000 laptops running in tandem. IBM has plans to unveil a newer, faster supercomputer that will rival the speed of 2,000,000 laptops. Now, just in case you want some more perspective, even budget, low-end, computers, are capable of billions of calculations/second. Our frail human minds can't really understand what kind of speed that is, but supercomputers are increasing that speed by many orders of magnitude.

So, when Silicon Graphics International Corp. announces plans to release a 'personal' supercomputer in the near future, it bothers me. I'll tell you why (only because you asked so nicely).

The PC industry is always talking about speed. How fast your boot-time is, how fast Microsoft Office loads, how fast your network is, transfer rates, etc. many people, especially the geeks, are tweaking their systems to get every last drop of computing potential from their system so that they will load Windows a few seconds faster. There's nothing wrong with that. I am guilty of the practice myself. However, the industry in general is highly misleading when it comes to what actually makes your computer speedy. It tends to come in trends. At first, memory size was the deciding factor in PC speed. After the size of PC memory became big enough and cheap enough for everyone to have the ideal amount, CPU speed became the bottleneck that needed to be upgraded. Once optical media became widespread, the speed of your CD drive became an upgrade target. It circled around a few times, CPU speed took the attention for a long time until the dual-core movement began, and RAM was once again the target when Vista shipped. once 3GB became standard for new computers, and dual-core was common, a new target was in order. The current fad is Solid State Hard drives.

These fads aren't arbitrary. They are simply the industry's way of getting rid of bottlenecks. In order to take advantage of a RAM upgrade, you need a CPU to process all that information. And so on and so forth. This has created the upgrading culture that leads people to worship supercomputers. People upgrade because the college student at Best Buy said so. And if the Geek Squad tells you something, you better listen. If you don't, your computer will spontaneously explode.

However, the bottlenecks that the industry leaders encourage you to upgrade are not necessarily what is slowing your computer down. When computing was at a simpler stage of life, it was pretty easy to determine causes of sluggishness. Today, it could be one of a hundred different things. The worst words an IT tech can hear are "Help! My computer is slow!" It's like someone going to a doctor and complaining of a runny nose. It could be anything. many people will just tell you "You need more RAM," or "Your CPU is too slow." Well, let me give you a little reality check. On my computer (Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB RAM), I have multiple instances of Office open (Word, Excel, and Access), 4-5 other applications, 15 tabs in my web browser, iTunes, Adobe Acrobat, and 2 remote desktop sessions open. I am using between 10-20% of my CPU power, and 1.5 GB of RAM. That's nothing. And I abuse my system more than most. If a non-geek user is using a computer and it is slow, it is not because they need an upgrade. It's because they are users, and they break things. The use the Interwebs irresponsibly, they install random software, and users always break everything.

Now, SGI wants to sell this personal supercomputer. It's going to start at a cool 8 grand, and it will have an Intel Xeon processor (used on higher-end servers), the ability to run 80 CPU cores, and memory up to 960GB. Now, based on what you just read, what is the point? If I can abuse my system, trying to reach the limits of its capability and failing, what 'personal user' would ever need 80 processor cores. I'm doing plenty, and I'm using a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. If a user would sit at a personal supercomputer for a few days, it would be just as slow as their normal computer. Aside from scientific use, supercomputers, personal or otherwise, have no place in the public market. They are super for a reason.

That being said, the industry is on the ball this time when they say that hard drives are the current bottlenecks to speed. After all, they are the last moving object in the PC system. Of course it's going to slow the whole thing down. if you really want to see how fast a computer can go with the hard drive bottleneck removed (and fastest parts for just about everything else), watch this video.

This is just 4 cores (not 80), and 6GB RAM (not 960).

Case Closed.

SGI needs to go away.


rebyosef said...

That video is SICK! Remind me - why are we still using moving-part hard drives??

Ruler of the Interwebs said...

Until recently, it wasn't financially viable to mass-produce solid state drives at a price that consumers could afford. Even at the beginning, a 64 GB SSD would be cool grand. They are getting cheaper by the month now, as is the case with most technology.

My prediction is that after Bluray comes and goes, flash cards will replace optical media. Then PC's really will have no moving parts.

Post a Comment