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High-Performance Computers Become Interactive

    Online News published in DMReview.com
November 16, 2005

An M.I.T.-born start-up called Interactive Supercomputing (ISC) unveiled a new class of technical computing software that, in effect, transforms powerful parallel supercomputers into easy-to-use, interactive desktop tools for rapidly solving large scientific and engineering problems.

ISC's Star-P is the world's first interactive parallel computing platform. It enables scientists and engineers to code algorithms and models on their desktops using familiar mathematical software packages such as MathWorks' MATLAB, and run them instantly and interactively on SGI Altix servers. Star-P eliminates the need to re-program the applications in C, Fortran or MPI to run on parallel computers - a productivity-killing step that can take months to years to complete for large, complex and computationally intensive problems.

Star-P automatically connects desktop applications to high-performance computers (HPCs) and parallelizes the application code on the fly, enabling users to scale their applications across any multi-processor system or parallel cluster in real time. Using Star-P they can tackle much larger problems on their desktops than ever before possible, while arriving at a solution in a fraction of the time.

"Based on recent IDC market studies, end-users won't be able to realize the full promise of high performance computing hardware until scientists, engineers or researchers can more easily program applications to run on parallel architectures," said Earl Joseph, program vice president, IDC. "Star-P is designed to address this problem by focusing on making parallel programming an interactive approach."

For example, researchers at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are using Star-P to analyze MRI examinations for quantifying the impact of cancer therapy on blood volume and flow in the developing brain of children. Geophysicists at the University of California San Diego are using Star-P to develop more accurate models for predicting earthquake hazards. And researchers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in conjunction with the Ohio Supercomputer Center are using Star-P in a variety of defense-related applications including new radar system development.

"Rather than re-coding algorithms in C or Fortran and MPI, we are looking to Star-P to let us continue working in the high-productivity desktop MATLAB environment, while scaling to supercomputers," said Dr. John Nehrbass, director of computational simulations in physics at the Ohio Supercomputer Center.

In addition to scientists, engineers and analysts doing research, Star-P is useful to project leaders, whose primary concern is accelerating the time-to-market of new products while lowering development costs. Star-P's ability to eliminate re-programming in C, Fortran or MPI gives project leaders a significant competitive advantage. Star-P also benefits infrastructure leaders who provide HPC systems as an internal or external resource. Star-P enables them to extend parallel computing capabilities to a wider range of users, while increasing the return on their HPC investment.

Star-P launches at a time when the $7 billion market for high-performance servers for science and engineering is outpacing even the commercial server market. Driving this demand is the fact that even the most powerful desktop workstations can no longer handle many of the huge computational requirements of new mathematical models and algorithms. Yet very few commercial software applications are able to run at all on parallel computing architectures, let alone interactively.

Consequently, researchers who "hit the wall" with their desktop applications are forced to stop their workflow, recode the application in a high-performance computing language, test the application on supercomputers in batch mode and then refine their work. Star-P solves this last remaining programming bottleneck, transparently linking desktop applications directly to parallel computers without forcing users to rewrite the code.

"In most cases, the correct approach or algorithm to a computational problem may not be known up front. Star-P's fine-grain parallelism enables for the first time the concept of 'computational steering' on parallel computers, allowing users to explore and guide their coding interactively. It's a huge productivity booster," said Pete Peterson, ISC's CEO.

Star-P is designed for high-performance computing applications in government, defense, intelligence, academic research, life sciences, earth sciences, energy, finance and manufacturing markets. Star-P 2.0 extends desktop MATLAB applications to high-performance computers, with plans to support other leading interactive desktop tools, such as Mathematica, Maple and Python in the near future.

Star-P can also breathe new life into the thousands of commercial science/engineering applications currently designed for desktop-only deployment. Because Star-P is an open platform, independent software vendors (ISVs) can easily port their existing software packages to run on parallel architectures, eliminating the need to develop new parallel-supported applications from scratch. It also simplifies and lowers the entry cost for new ISV applications to enter the market for parallel computing solutions.

Star-P runs on SGI Altix servers supporting from one to 512 processors, 24 terabytes of memory, and running 64-bit Linux. Star-P will be marketed through Silicon Graphics Inc.'s direct and indirect sales force.


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