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1.3 Caltech Concurrent Computation Program


CP's origins dated to an early collaboration between the physics and computer science departments at Caltech in bringing up UNIX on the physics department's VAX 11/780. As an aside, we note this was motivated by the development of the Symbolic Manipulation Program (SMP) by Wolfram and collaborators; this project has now grown into the well-known system Mathematica. Carver Mead from computer science urged physics to get back to them if we had insoluble large scale computational needs. This comment was reinforced in May, 1981 when Mead gave a physics colloquium on VLSI, Very Large Scale Integration, and the opportunities it opened up. Fox, in the audience, realized that quantum chromodynamics (QCD, Section 4.3), now using up all free cycles on the VAX 11/780, was naturally parallelizable and could take advantage of the parallel machines promised by VLSI. Thus, a seemingly modest interdisciplinary interaction-a computer scientist lecturing to physicists-gave birth to a large interdisciplinary project, CP. Further, our interest in QCD stemmed from the installation of the VAX 11/780 to replace our previous batch computing using a remote CDC7600 . This more attractive computing environment, UNIX on a VAX 11/780, encouraged theoretical physics graduate students to explore computation.

During the summer of 1981, Fox's research group, especially Eugene Brooks and Steve Otto, showed that effective concurrent algorithms could be developed, and we presented our conclusion to the Caltech computer scientists. This presentation led to the plans, described in a national context in Chapter 2, to produce the first hypercube, with Chuck Seitz and his student Erik DeBenedictis developing the hardware and Fox's group the QCD applications and systems software. The physics group did not understand what a hypercube was at that stage, but agreed with the computer scientists because the planned six-dimensional hypercube was isomorphic to a three-dimensional mesh,  a topology whose relevance a physicist could appreciate. With the generous help of the computer scientists, we gradually came to understand the hypercube topology with its general advantage (maximum distance between nodes is ) and its specific feature of including a rich variety of mesh topologies. Here N is the total number of nodes in the concurrent computer. We should emphasize that this understanding of the relevance of concurrency to QCD was not particularly novel; it followed from ideas already known from earlier concurrent machines such as the Illiac IV. We were, however, fortunate to investigate the issues at a time when microprocessor technology (in particular the Intel 8086/8087) allowed one to build large (in terms of number of nodes) cost-effective concurrent computers with interesting performance levels. The QCD problem was also important in helping ensure that the initial Cosmic Cube  was built with sensible design choices; we were fortunate that in choosing parameters, such as memory size, appropriate for QCD, we also realized a machine of general capability.

While the 64-node Cosmic Cube was under construction, Fox wandered around Caltech and the associated Jet Propulsion Laboratory explaining parallel computing and, in particular, the Cosmic Cube to scientists in various disciplines who were using ``large'' (by the standards of 1981) scale computers. To his surprise, all the problems being tackled on conventional machines by these scientists seemed to be implementable on the Cosmic Cube. This was the origin of CP, which identified the Caltech-JPL applications team, whose initial participants are noted in Table 4.2. Fox, Seitz, and these scientists prepared the initial proposals which established and funded CP in the summer of 1983. Major support was obtained from the Department of Energy and the Parsons and System Development Foundation. Intel made key initial contributions of chips to the Cosmic Cube and follow-on machines. The Department of Energy remained the central funding support for CP throughout its seven years, 1983 to 1990.

The initial CP proposals were focussed on the question:

``Is the hypercube an effective computer for large-scale scientific computing?''

Our approach was simple: Build or acquire interesting hardware and provide the intellectual and physical infrastructure to allow leading application scientists and engineers to both develop parallel algorithms and codes, and use them to address important problems. Often we liked to say that CP

``used real hardware and real software to solve real problems.''

Our project showed initial success, with the approximately ten applications of Table 4.2 developed in the first year. We both showed good performance on the hypercube and developed a performance model which is elaborated in Chapter 3. A major activity at this time was the design and development of the necessary support software, termed CrOS and later developed into the commercial software Express described in Chapter 5. Not only was the initial hardware applicable to a wide range of problems, but our software model proved surprisingly useful. CrOS was originally designed by Brooks as the ``mailbox communication system'' and we initially targeted the regular synchronous problems typified in Chapter 4. Only later did we realize that it supported quite efficiently the irregular and non-local communication needs of more general problems. This generalization is represented as an evolutionary track of Express in Chapter 5 and for a new communication system Zipcode in Section 16.1 developed from scratch for general asynchronous irregular problems.

Although successful, we found many challenges and intriguing questions opened up by CP's initial investigation into parallel computing. Further, around 1985, the DOE and later the NSF made substantial conventional supercomputer  (Cray, Cyber, ETA) time available to applications scientists. Our Cosmic Cube  and the follow-on Mark II machines were very competitive with the VAX 11/780, but not with the performance offered by the CRAY X-MP. Thus, internal curiosity and external pressures moved CP in the direction of computer science: still developing real software but addressing new parallel algorithms and load-balancing techniques rather than a production application. This phase of CP is summarized in [Angus:90a], [Fox:88a;88b].

Around 1988, we returned to our original goal with a focus on parallel supercomputers. We no longer concentrated on the hypercube, but rather asked such questions as [Fox:88v],

``What are the cost, technology, and software trade-offs that will drive the design of future parallel supercomputers?''

and as a crucial (and harder) question:

``What is the appropriate software environment for parallel machines and how should one develop it?''

We evolved from the initial 8086/8087, 80286/80287 machines to the internal JPL Mark IIIfp and commercial nCUBE-1  and CM-2 described in Chapter 2. These were still ``rough, difficult to use machines'' but had performance capabilities competitive with conventional supercomputers.

This book largely describes work in the last three years of CP when we developed a series of large scale applications on these parallel supercomputers. Further, as described in Chapters 15, 16, and 17, we developed prototypes and ideas for higher level software environments which could accelerate and ease the production of parallel software. This period also saw an explosion of interest in the use of parallel computing outside Caltech. Much of this research used commercial hypercubes which partly motivated our initial discoveries and successes on the in-house machines at Caltech. This rapid technology transfer was in one sense gratifying, but it also put pressure on CP which was better placed to blaze new trails than to perform the more programmatic research which was now appropriate.

An important and unexpected discovery in CP was in the education and the academic support for interdisciplinary research. Many of the researchers, especially graduate students in CP, evolved to be ``computational scientists.'' Not traditional physicists, chemists, or computer scientists but rather something in between. We believe that this interdisciplinary education and expertise was critical for CP's success and, as discussed in Chapter 20, it should be encouraged in more universities [Fox:91f;92d].

Further information about CP can be found in our annual reports and two reviews.


next up previous contents index
Next: 1.4 How Parallel Computing Up: 1 Introduction Previous: 1.2 The National Vision

Guy Robinson
Wed Mar 1 10:19:35 EST 1995