CW: What is the exascale data challenge?
Beckman: If we imagine that we have a machine that is an exascale, exaflop machine, generating petabytes and petabytes of data, it becomes its own, in some sense, computation problem. We can't solve the bandwidth storage problem by just buying more disks. A multi-level plan is what will have to evolve, including NVRAM and even novel technologies such as phase change memory . But there has to be a comprehensive data solution that includes analysis. It can't be, 'Oh, we just need to be able to store the data.' We need to look up the architecture necessary to analyze the data. If you look at Google and the other web-based technologies, they have come up with ways to store and analyze data -- a way in which you have a programming model where the storage and analysis are very close.
In computing we haven't done that yet. We've always had the model where the data is over here, the computing is over [there]; you ask for the data, you get a copy of it, you put it in the computer, you work on it a lot, and then you put it back. And so as we move to exascale, where this computing becomes really more powerful and the data sets become bigger, sloshing this back and forth is way too costly in terms of power and performance -- power, especially. It's movement that cost a lot of electrical power. We need to find to ways to compute and then analyze and do the storage and analysis closer together.
CW: Is there anything out there like that today?
Beckman: Some types of data lend themselves to spreading out the computation though the data -- satellite images and other things. People have had this sort of capability for certain types of data sets. But we really need to think broadly about the problem. What you want to do is figure out ways to slice and dice the data, and do analysis on the data in an integrated architecture. And that's something that will become more important at exascale that we haven't addressed very well, yet.
CW: What about the February exascale report due to Congress?
Beckman: What's that about? Congress asked the DOE for a written plan for exascale and it is to be delivered no later than Feb. 10. In the last couple of years, the labs, the scientists, have been driving this exascale discussion, because of a need to do the science, and these are big challenges: power, resilience, how to program these things. What hasn't happened is, in some sense, a formal plan from DOE for reaching exascale... [the] plan for getting us there.
CW: Is this report the gateway to funding?
Beckman: Congress is not going to fund an exascale initiative without a clear plan, so real funding is gated on convincing through this plan, and through discussions, of the importance of this for the nation.
What's going on internationally to develop exascale computing? A year and half ago, the Europeans got together as part of working in this space and said, 'We need to put together a European plan.' They created this plan over the last year. In October, I was at the meeting in Barcelona when they presented the plan to the European Commission and said, 'This is what we need for exascale -- two-to-three billion Euros.' In addition to presenting this to the European Commission, which is favorably disposed, they have already boot-strapped three projects. It is a step along the way, but it is bold and it is already started and people are already working on it. If they are successful, it paves the way to put more funding into that and go take it to the next level and eventually look at building a system.