Volume 7, Issue 1 -
Spring/Summer 1999

Volume 6, Issue 3
Fall 1998

Volume 6, Issue 2
Spring/Summer 1998

Volume 6, Issue 1
Winter 1998

Volume 5, Issue 4
Fall 1997

Volume 5, Issue 3
Summer 1997

Volume 5, Issue 2
Spring 1997

Volume 5, Issue 1
Winter 1997

Volume 4, Issue 4
Fall 1996

Volume 4, Issue 3
Summer 1996

Volume 4, Issue 2
Spring 1996

Volume 4, Issue 1
Winter 1996

Volume 3, Issue 4
Fall 1995

Volume 3, Issue 3
Summer 1995

Volume 3, Issue 2
Spring 1995

Volume 3, Issue 1
January 1995

Volume 2, Issue 4
October 1994

Volume 2, Issue 3
July 1994

Volume 2, Issue 2
April 1994

Volume 2, Issue 1
January 1994

Volume 1, Issue 4
October 1993

Volume 1, Issue 3
July 1993

Volume 1, Issue 2
April 1993

Volume 1, Issue 1
January 1993

Ken Kennedy, Director, CRPC

The announcement that Thinking Machines would seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, although not unexpected, sent shock waves through the high- performance computing community. Coupled with the well-publicized problems of Kendall Square Research and the rumored problems of Intel Supercomputer Systems Division, this event has led many people to question the long- term viability of the parallel computing industry and even parallel computing itself. Meanwhile, the dramatic strides in the performance of scientific workstations continues to squeeze the market for parallel supercomputing. On several recent occasions, I have been asked whether parallel computing will soon be relegated to the trash heap reserved for promising technologies that never quite make it. Washington certainly seems to be looking in the other direction--agency program managers, if they talk of high-performance computing at all, seem to view it as a small and relatively unimportant subcomponent of the National Information Infrastructure.

Is parallel computing really dead? At the very least, it is undergoing a major transition. With the end of the cold war, there is less funding for defense-oriented supercomputing, which has been the traditional mainstay of the high-end market. If parallel computing is to survive in the new environment, a much larger fraction of sales must be to industry, which seems to be substantially less concerned with high-end performance. Two factors bear on the size of the industrial market for parallel computing. First, most engineering firms have recently made the transition away from mainframes to workstations. These companies believe that if they need more computational power than they have on a single workstation, they should be able to get it by using a network of such machines. Whether or not this is true, it has substantially affected sales of tightly coupled parallel systems and must be taken into account when analyzing the needs of industry users.

A second factor affecting commercial sales of parallel computer systems has been the reluctance of independent software vendors like MacNeal- Schwendler to move their applications to parallel machines. I believe the primary reason for this reluctance has been the absence of an industry standard interface that supports machine-independent parallel programming. Without such a standard, a software vendor's investment in conversion to parallel machines is not protected--when a new parallel computing architecture with a new programming interface emerges, the application would need to be retargeted.

So is parallel computing on its last legs? Although good news has been very limited over the past few months, there are several reasons why it is too soon to give up:

  • First, no matter how powerful the workstation processor is, if it is possible to write programs that scale from one processor to thousands, there will be plenty of applications that can take advantage of the additional computational power due to parallelism. Even high-end workstation companies acknowledge this by providing multiprocessors and support for clusters.
  • Second, the software and algorithms problems that must be solved for scalable parallel systems to be usable (e.g., development of scalable parallel programming interfaces and standard programming languages) also need to be solved for networks of workstations if they are to succeed as high-end computing engines.
  • Finally, I believe independent software vendors will adopt parallelism when parallel programming interfaces become industry standards. Recently, J.S. Nolan and Associates, a vendor of reservoir analysis codes, has undertaken a major project to implement their very popular code VIP in PVM. This has been made possible by the portability of PVM, which has yielded implementations on most common parallel computing systems, including networks of workstations.
From the outset, we have known that a lot of work was needed to make scalable parallel computing truly useful. Projects at the Center for Research on Parallel Computation and throughout the computational science community are now beginning to bear fruit. Standards like High Performance Fortran and Message Passing Interface, along with portable systems like PVM, are beginning to make parallel computing more palatable to commercial firms.

So I assert that parallel computing is not dead--it is simply suffering through a period of growing pains. We are coming to realize that parallel computing is really a software problem. Therefore, we should not be too distressed when a company drops out of the crowded hardware market. The industry needs software and standards to make writing parallel applications easier. If it gets them, the whole industry will grow, creating more business for everyone.

Table of Contents

News | From the Director | Parallel Profile | Research Focus | Work in Progress | Education / Outreach | Resources | Calendar | CRPC Home