One to watch: pedigree designer tackles supercomputer bottleneck

Tuesday 18th November 2008
Steven Wallach awarded the prestigious Seymour Cray Computer Science and Engineering Award 2008 for his

Gaberlunzie notes that John Markoff in the New York Times is writing about a name to conjure with, that of Steven Wallach, who apart from winning awards has completed the soul of his newest machine, based on the Field Programmable Gate Array, the chips that originated for industrial use, but now widely used to prototype computer systems, since they can be easily reprogrammed, and yet offer the blazing speed of computer hardware. Early customer, University of California San Diego predicts substantial performance gains with fewer server rack, translating into saving on cooling and facility costs.

Wallach has opted to couple them so tightly to the microprocessor chip that it would appear they are simply a small set of additional instructions to give programmers an easy way to turbocharge a program. Everything has to look exactly like the standard programming environment, contrasted to the many supercomputers  currently requiring totally superhuman programmers.  

Wallach was one of the team of computer designers in the 1980's who worked on the Data General 32 bit MV8000 minicomputer. It was intended to oust  that 'alternate culture' organisation Digital Equipment Corp, with its amazing PDPs. The DG development inspired Tracy Kidder to write "The Soul of a New Machine," with its totally unforgettable quotation on the stress of that creation: "I'm going to work somewhere where time is measured in units no smaller than a season."

Now Wallach has emerged with a supercomputer from his new company, Convey Computer. Nothing quite like starting up in a recession with competition from Cray, IBM, HP, Sun and a dozen others. But in two years, Convey has raised $15.1m and has both Intel and  Xilinx as early investors.

Wallach's memorable quotes are: “In a lot of ways, it’s easier than it was in 1982. You need less money and I don’t think a lot of people have grasped this," and " The past 40 years has taught us that ultimately the system that is easiest to program will always win.”

The Convey computer will be based around Intel’s microprocessors. It will perform like a shape-shifter, reconfiguring different hardware “personalities” to compute problems for different industries and initially aiming at bioinformatics, computer-aided design, financial services and oil and gas exploration. The weather business might be grateful too.


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