Every day in almost every plant in the US, Dell provides great value. There are low cost, high efficiency Dell computers assisting us in running plant floor systems better spread all over the world. I was then, excited to hear that Michael Dell, CEO of Dell computers was giving the opening keynote at SC08 here in Austin. Perhaps that is also the reason for the deepness of my disappointment in the talk (you can see my stream of consciousness thoughts on the keynote as it was going by using this Twitter RSS feed). Don’t get me wrong, it was entertaining. The art department at Dell creates gorgeous slides. More importantly, buried in amongst the 40 minute Dell commercial, there were some hidden gems for the folks in manufacturing to contemplate. While I do not think that these qualify a a true vision, they are perhaps breadcrumbs on the path to having a vision for HPC. Consider the following points:
Dell is predicting that by 2010 processors will contain 80+ cores. If you think that the software pricing model for your plant floor software and back end databases is a budget busting nightmare with dual or quad core processors now, imagine what will happen in a few years when the smallest processors have 20 or so cores on them and high end processors are 80 cores. Now is the time for manufacturers as a group to start working with vendors to get the software pricing problem fixed.
Michael Dell admitted that the recent “core war” started recently and escalated fast, but he was very firm in the idea that it was not going to end soon. Software is the big gap in all of this. If super multi-core machines are going to be available on the plant floor soon, which vendors are poising themselves to take advantage of that power? Even though tasks like scheduling could be written to take advantage of parallel computing power, I do not know of any out of the box programs that do. I certainly can not know everything, so please comment if you know of some. Yes, there are companies out there (FedEx comes to mind first) who are writing custom algorithms and software, but that requires a huge investment in time, talent and money. I will point out to the plant floor software vendors amongst us Michael Dell’s thoughts “..there is a need for petascale software to take advantage of all of this computing hardware …..if you can be the first to figure out a way to use all this hardware power, there is a lot of financial advantage to be made”.
It was pointed out how deeply prices for compute power have dropped in the last 5 years. In 2003, 2 teraflops of compute power cost roughly a million dollars. That put 2 teraflop questions firmly out of reach for most manufacturers. The benefit gained was not worth adding a million dollars to production costs. Today, you can get 25 teraflops for a million dollars. In the current economy, you are even less likely to want to add a million dollars to production costs- but that scale means that for at most 80 thousand dollars, you can get 2 teraflops of compute power. What 2 teraflop questions/problems are you not tackling because you are still thinking in terms of 2003 pricing? What simulations or real time data analysis could be giving you a competitive edge, that you have not even considered for fear of sticker shock??
I am off to try to set up some one on one time with Dell’s manufacturing outreach folks. If you have specific questions for Dell related to their use in manufacturing, comment them below so I can get responses for you. Perhaps they will be able to give me more interesting insights in the vision at Dell, since Mike missed the mark.