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Frankfurt ISC 2017 post-show European high end computing adventure: a place in Taiwan for it?
Contributed by Nebojsa Novakovic [Monday 10 July 2017]

Half a month in late-June European heatwave may make Computex-time Taipei feel actually comfortable; however there was a good reason this time to endure the heat – the ISC 2017 in Frankfurt, held on 18 to 22 June, as well as some interesting post-expo disclosures, made it more than worthwhile.

Frankfurt-based ISC, the "International" sister event of the US-based SC annual supercomputer conference, has a higher proportion of both European and Asian vendors, speakers and visitors alike, including those from Greater China – easier visa situation for the EU certainly helps there. The hardware shown at the ISC (and of course SC) is the very top, cream-of-the-crop, aimed at HPC, datacenters, AI and similar server- and workstation-rich applications. Since supercomputing is the bleeding-edge showcase of high end computing, you'll usually see never-heard-of high end CPU and system platforms, as well as interesting integration, cooling, packaging and other approaches normally not seen even at Computex overclocker competitions.

For instance, you'll see the Japanese vendors such as ExaScaler/PEZY, with fully immersed (in Fluorinert liquid, out of all) ultradense batteries of Xeon CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, FPGAs and even ExaScaler own SC2 ultraparallel MIPS processor with on-chip 3-D stacked memory and FP performance akin to that of Nvidia Pascal GPU. There are also our usual Chinese friends like Shenwei from Wuxi showing the first concept mass-market 2-CPU liquid-cooled server boards using high end PC-like water cooling from EK, or FPGA accelerator boards trying to get into the overheated coin mining market. I won't even mention the usual chip (Intel, Nvidia, AMD, IBM) and system (IBM again, Lenovo, NEC, Fujitsu, Dell, HPE and so on) vendors.

How about the Taiwanese? Guess what, there are few, yet valuable, shows of presence – while Asus wasn't there, the cousin, Asrock, was there, exhibiting the new dense HPC-class server offerings for the X86 platforms. These half-width and full-width nodes may not be anything revolutionary yet, but they are there to meet the needs of general purpose HPC and datacenter clusters. Tyan showed a bit more, including the upcoming Skylake Xeon Platinum (Purley) as well as AMD EPYC servers. It seems that, thanks to the latter one's abundance of PCIe lanes per socket, there'll be many EPYC boards for I/O intensive computing like storage servers for fast PCIe SSD arrays, for instance. Their 2-socket EPYC board wasn't ready for the show though – seems that's due to AMD CPU issues.

Gigabyte had similar server stuff on display, except one interesting thing – a tad over cubic-foot sized immersed liquid multi-node computing box in a transparent enclosure. While far from any production schedule, the attempt justifies some praise as just getting an immersed solution to work right, yet isolate the outside world connection for the box from that same liquid, is some work to do.

Finally, Wistron's new 2U high compute server box was shown on the fliers – but the specs had nothing in common with the other boxes around there. Dual IBM POWER9 processors, up to 24 cores each, coupled over NVLink 2.0 shared memory links with dual Nvidia Volta compute GPUs on SXM2 cards, with plenty of spare PCIe Gen4 lanes and up to 4TB memory, makes for some 16 TFLOPs double precision performance, and internal board bandwidth numbers far ahead of that seen in the new X86 CPUs this year. As mentioned in my Computex enterprise story, these new platforms were about to come out, and now they are entering the market – bringing the much-needed diversity. Add some better cooling (liquid cooling was everywhere at the exhibition) for higher density, and you may have that better-margin, more unique set of offerings right here from Taiwan.

However, they'll have to learn how to create a whole system offering including service and support – in that respect, Chinese vendors like Lenovo, Inspur and Sugon far outweigh them, with multiple Europe installations and full scale support and partner network there, making money out of every step of the process. I've seen some of these systems, like Sugon ARCTURUS in Slovenia, after the expo, and the solution delivery was first-class.

It's a good time to move forward now, as EU is contemplating its own high-end processor design for the next-generation large machines, and Taiwan vendors should endear themselves to the powers that be to provide the board and system hardware for such new platform, this being Taiwan's core competency for decades.

In summary, the top-notch supercomputing hardware shouldn't be beyond Taiwan vendors' capabilities, as even China is using its No.1 position to spread its wings around. Yes, the most recent Taiwan order for a Fujitsu machine to be the first petascale national supercomputer may feel a little disappointing; however local vendors should be more emboldened with this market rapid expansion and increase their presence – hope the next ISC has twice as many of them, at least.

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