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Maxeler says Intel's Knights Ferry simplicity might not suit HPC

More effort yields better performance
Fri Jul 15 2011, 16:14

SPECIALIST CHIP VENDOR Maxeler has said that Intel's easy to program approach with its Knights Ferry high performance computing (HPC) processor mainboard chipsets might not be what the industry wants.

Maxeler, a firm that specialises in designing, selling and maintaining software that runs on FPGA hardware said that Intel's Knights Ferry HPC board chipsets might not provide what customers are looking for in a highly competitive marketplace. Talking with The INQUIRER, Oskar Mencer, CEO of Maxeler said, "Intel's goal is to make machines easier to program," and that HPC customers "care more about performance and operational cost".

Intel showed off Knights Ferry boards at the International Supercomputing Conference last month citing the ease of programming, with firms such as SGI showing that coders can make use of the board by simply adding pragmas to their code. However according to Mencer, HPC customers consider aspects such as the power consumption of machines, a point that becomes increasingly important when you hit high volume HPC deployments with thousands of nodes.

Mencer admitted that FPGAs are harder to program for but said that "putting in more effort allows our customers to differentiate themselves", adding that "more effort leads to greater performance" out of their products. Mencer highlighted the obvious benefits in paying an experienced coder more money at the start to code for FPGAs and reaping the benefits of lower total cost of ownership when it comes to lower power and space requirements, saying that his customers say, "show me the performance per watt".

Intel's Knights Ferry boards are impressive bits of kit but Mencer said that for Intel, "HPC is a PR activity, a showing off activity". Mencer is right in that Intel's core business is selling processor chips for desktops, laptops, servers, and it hopes, smartphones and tablets - not being at the summit of the super computing Top500 list. According to Mencer, Knights Ferry is there to "protect their fringe market" rather than truly go after the specialist HPC vendors.

Although Mencer has his doubts over the saleability of ease of programmability, he still says that some HPC customers will consider Intel's Knights Ferry but doesn't expect systems to be deployed for another 12 to 18 months. Mencer said that none of Maxeler's customers had enquired about Knights Ferry in comparison to Maxeler's kit.

While Mencer commended Intel for trying to make computer programming as easy as possible, for HPC, an industry that employs some of the best programmers in the business, being able to bang out some code in a couple of days is offset against long term performance gains. Performance gains that Mencer claims is in the order of 10X for FPGAs over Intel's HPC kit. µ


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