I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

― Abraham Maslow

High performance computing is a big deal these days and may become a bigger deal very soon. It has become a new battleground for national supremacy. The United States will very likely soon commit to a new program for achieving progress in computing. This program by all accounts will be focused primarily on the computing hardware first, and then the system software that directly connects to this hardware. The goal will be the creation of a new generation of supercomputers that attempt to continue the growth of computing power into the next decade, and provide a path to “exascale”. I think it is past time to ask, “do we have the right priorities?” “Is this goal important and worthy of achieving?”

Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.

― Zig Ziglar

I’ll return to these two questions at the end, but first I’d like to touch on an essential concept in high performance computing, scaling. Scaling is a big deal, it measures success in computing, in a nutshell describes efficiency of solving problems particular with respect to changing problem size or computing resource. In scientific computing one of the primary assumptions is that bigger faster computers yield better, more accurate results that have greater relevance to the real world. The success of computing depends on scaling and breakthroughs in achieving it, defines the sort of problems that could be solved.

Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.

― Peter Drucker

There are several types of scaling with distinctly different character. Lately the dominant scaling in computing has been associated with parallel computing performance. Originally the focus was on strong scaling, which is defined by the ability of greater computing resources to solve a problem of fixed size faster. In other words perfect strong scaling would result from solving a problem twice as fast with two CPUs than with one CPU.

Lately this has been replaced by weak scaling where the problem size is adjusted along with the resource. The goal is to solve a problem that is twice as big with two CPUs just as fast as the original problem is solved with one CPU. These scaling results depend both on the software implementation and the quality of the hardware. They are the stock and trade of success in the currently envisioned high performance-computing program nationally. They are also both relatively unimportant and poor measures of the power of computing to solve scientific problems.

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.

― Albert Einstein

Algorithmic scaling is another form of scaling and it is massive in its power. We are failing to measure, invest and utilize it in moving forward in computing nationally. The gains to be made through algorithmic scaling will almost certainly lay waste to anything that computing hardware will deliver. It isn’t that hardware investments aren’t necessary; they are simply grossly over-emphasized to a harmful degree.

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

― Isaac Asimov

The archetype of algorithmic scaling is sorting a list, which is an amazingly common and important function for a computer program. Common sorting algorithms are things like insertion, or quick-sort, and each comes with a scaling for the memory required and the number of operations to work to completion. In most cases the best that can be done is linear scaling, in other words for a list that is items long, it takes order operations. This means that for a sufficiently large list the cost is proportional to some constant times the length of the list, . Other high-grade algorithms like quicksort take order , but may carry a smaller constant. These can be faster for shorter lists. If one chooses very poorly the sorting can scale like . There are alsoaspects of the algorithm and it’s scaling that speak to the memory-storage needed and the complexity of the algorithm’s implementation. These themes carry on to a discussion of more esoteric computational science algorithms next.

In scientific computing two categories of algorithm loom large over substantial swaths of the field: numerical linear algebra, and discretization-methods. Both of these categories have important scaling relations associated with their use that have a huge impact on the efficiency of solution. We have not been paying much attention at all to the efficiencies possible from these areas. Improvements in both areas could yield improvements in performance that would put any new computer to shame.

For numerical linear algebra the issue is the cost of solving the matrix problem with respect to the number of equations. For the simplest view of the problem one uses a naïve method like Gaussian elimination (or LU decomposition), which scales like where is the number of equations to be solved. This method is designed to solve a dense matrix where there are few non-zero entries. In scientific computing the matrices are typically “sparse” meaning most entries are zero. An algorithm specifically for sparse matrices lowers the scaling to . These methods both produce “exact” solutions to the system (modulo poorly conditioned problems).

If an approximate solution is desired or useful one can use lower cost iterative methods. The simplest methods like the Jacobi or Gauss-Seidel iteration also scale at . Modern iterative methods are based on the Krylov subspace with the conjugate gradient method being the classical method. As exact solutions these methods scale as , but as iterative methods for approximate solutions the scaling lowers to $N^\frac{3}{2}$. One can do even better with multigrid methods, lowering the scaling to .

Each of this sequence of methods has a constant in front of the scaling, and the constant gets larger as scaling gets better. Nonetheless it is easy to see that if you’re solving a billion unknowns the difference between and is immense, a billion billion. The difference in constants between the two methods is several thousand. In the long run multigrid wins. One might even do better than multigrid with current research in data analysis producing sublinear algorithms for large-scale data analysis. Another issue is the difficulty of making multigrid work in parallel, as the method is inherently NOT parallel in important parts. Multigrid performance is also not robust and Krylov subspace methods still dominate actual use.

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.

― Albert Einstein

Discretization can provide even great wins. If a problem is amenable to high-order accuracy, a higher order method will unequivocally win over a low-order method. The problem is that most practical problems you can get paid to solve don’t have this property. In almost every case the solution will converge at a first-order accuracy. This is the nature of the world. The knee-jerk response is that this means that high-order methods are not useful. This shows a lack of understanding on what they bring to the table and how they scale. High-order methods produce lower errors than low-order methods even when high-order accuracy cannot be achieved.

As a simple example take a high-order method that delivers half the error of a low order method. To get equivalent results the high-order method would take half the mesh defined by a number of “cell” or “elements” per dimension . If one is interested in time-dependent problems, the number of time steps is usually proportional to . Hence a one-dimensional problem would require degrees of freedom. For equivalent accuracy the high-order method would require cells and one-fourth of the degrees of freedom. It breaks even at four times the cost. In three dimensional time dependent problems, the scaling is and the break-even point is 16 in cost. This is imminently doable. Even larger improvements in accuracy would provide an even more insurmountable advantage.

The counter-point to these methods is their computational cost and complexity. The second issue is their fragility, which can be recast as their robustness or stability in the face of real problems. Still their performance gains are sufficient to amortize the costs given the vast magnitude of the accuracy gains and effective scaling.

An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.

― Niels Bohr

The last issue to touch upon is the need to make algorithms robust, which is just another word for stable. Work on stability of algorithms is simply not happening these days. Part of the consequence is a lack of progress. For example one way to view the lack of ability of multigrid to dominate numerical linear algebra is its lack of robustness (stability). The same thing holds for high-order discretizations, which are typically not as robust or stable as low order ones. As a result low-order methods dominate scientific computing. For algorithms to prosper work on stability and robustness needs to be part of the recipe.

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

― Albert Einstein

Performance is a monotonically sucking function of time. Our current approach to HPC will not help matters, and effectively ignores the ability of algorithms to make things better. So “do we have the right priorities?” and “is this goal (of computing supremacy) important and worthy of achieving?” The answers are an unqualified NO and a qualified YES. The goal of computing dominance and supremacy is certainly worth achieving, but having the fastest computer will absolutely not get us there. It is neither necessary, nor sufficient for success.

This gets to the issue of priorities directly. Our current program is so intellectually bankrupt as to be comical, and reflects a starkly superficial thinking that ignores the sort of facts staring them directly in the face such as the evidence of commercial computing. Computing matters because of how it impacts the real world we live it. This means the applications of computing matter most of all. In the approach to computing taken today the applications are taken completely for granted, and reality is a mere afterthought.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

― Arthur C. Clarke