Wednesday, July 15, 2015

HP aims high as it raises the stakes in HPC

By Bill Moran and Rich Ptak

Recently, Bill Mannel, the new VP and GM of HPC[1]/Big Data for HP Servers Group, personally provided a review of their new HPC strategy. Usually, briefings of this sort have the executive say a few words; they then turn the briefing over to marketing and technical staff that provide details. Clearly this isn’t Mannel’s style. He not only personally presented the entire briefing but also very ably answered all the analyst’s questions; a reflection of his engineering background. (He held technical positions in the US Air Force, NASA and SGI before joining HP.) It was a very impressive performance. Now, let’s review the strategy with our comments on its implications.

Every strategy briefing includes an overview of important market issues. Mannel chose to focus on the effect of major industry trends on HP and HPC. Device proliferation (IoT) is happening and accelerating now. These always on-line devices generate vast quantities of data; much of which requires speedy, real-time analysis. Adding to the traffic are humans operating billions of cell phones world-wide. While the trends are not new; HP’s response is.

IT has a key role in every data-related activity from creation thru to service delivery in today’s enterprise. Mannel and HP are convinced that IT must transform itself from a cost center to a creator of competitive advantage. As a cost center, IT is a target for cost cuts. As a creator of competitive advantage, IT drives revenue; its budget becomes an investment in technology, not an overhead expense. HP is a partner/provider of services, guidance and products that improve IT’s effectiveness in the enterprise.

Mannel’s discussions with customers spotlighted HPC’s link to Big Data. Asked about using a system 1000x times more powerful than today’s most powerful supercomputers, a weather researcher foresaw no problem scaling calculations. His concern was with the months required to process the resulting volume of data output. Clearly, HPC and Big Data must work in tandem; thus Mannel’s responsibilities spans all HPC/Big Data-related solutions and partnerships.

Mannel skillfully wove-in additional data from customer executives with HPC responsibilities. A key insight was that HPC users believe that “one size fits all” has failed them; standard X86 architectures have run out of gas. General purpose hardware cannot deliver needed performance; it’s too slow and too expensive.

Mannel’s conclusion: Big Data/HPC environments are ripe for tailored solutions. Common thinking in commercial computing for some time, it was now gaining ground among HPC professionals. No single vendor can provide everything needed alone.  A critical part of the HPC strategy is expansion of the HPC Partner Ecosystem to cover storage, networking and accelerator options. Examples include Intel, Mellanox, NVIDIA and Seagate along with ongoing support of and contributions to OpenStack.

The recently announced HP/Intel Alliance for HPC which includes jointly sponsored benchmarking centers supports the overall strategy. These will help to advance customer innovation while expanding accessibility of HPC for enterprises of all sizes. Centers will include facilities for benchmarking, performance issue analysis, code analysis and code modernization. Replying to a question, Mannel stated the alliance with Intel was not exclusive; HP retains the option to collaborate with others, e.g. AMD. We are sure that this is correct, but it is also obvious that the existence of joint centers provides Intel a clear advantage.

Early focus will be on customers in Financial Services, Oil & Gas and Life Sciences. ISVs such as Schlumberger, ANSYS, Gaussian, Simulia, and Redline are also targeted for support. We expect customer demand to expand the list.

Mannel’s plans call for systems able to penetrate the very high end of the Top 500 supercomputer list.[2] (As of June 2015, HP has 178 entries listed, mostly clustered at the low end.) HP’s Apollo 8000 systems have the potential to reach the very top brackets currently dominated by IBM and Cray.[3] We predict very intensive activity in the support centers to make that happen.

We believe that HP’s new strategy has a very good chance for success. Bill Mannel strikes us as a capable executive with a lot of HPC experience. His apparently successful blending of a technical engineering background with manufacturing/business management skills is great preparation for his current position. He communicated the HP strategy very clearly and effectively. He gave excellent answers to every question thrown at him. The briefing was among the best we’ve ever had with HP.

At this point, we can’t judge Mannel’s success at navigating the internal politics that exist at HP (and all large companies). However, based on what we’ve seen so far, we expect he will do just fine. It is our opinion that HP made a very good move in choosing him to lead their HPC efforts. We wish him and HP good hunting during the coming months.

[1] High Performance Computing
[2] See
[3] Although the #1 system in the world is Chinese-built on Intel processors.