3D Web will save high-performance computing industry, Intel CTO says

The 3D Web will require cloud technologies to deal with load balancing, identity and authentication, content distribution, payment services and other needs

Three-dimensional Web technologies will save the high-performance computing industry from its current state of financial stagnation, Intel CTO Justin Rattner predicted at the SC09 supercomputing conference in Portland, Ore. Tuesday.

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Delivering the opening address, Rattner said the HPC market is struggling, with a compound annual growth rate of about 3.6%. Based on current trends, there is no sign of a future upswing.

"This is not a healthy business," he said. Demand for high-performance computing capability is limited to small markets, but Rattner believes that virtually the entire population can benefit from HPC if given the right platform.

"High-performance computing doesn't need a killer app as much as it needs a killer application framework," Rattner said. "It needs a platform in which people can leverage the power of high-performance computing to do just about anything they can imagine."

That "killer application framework," Rattner said, is the 3D Web, powered on the back end by cloud technologies and the HPC industry. The 3D Web technologies will not only power virtual worlds we know today like Second Life, but create ways for people to interact with each other and new platforms for businesses to test products, he said.

To illustrate the 3D Web's potential Rattner brought on several guest speakers from fields as varied as biology and fashion. Aaron Duffy, a biology researcher at Utah State University, made an appearance via a virtual world video feed, in which he explained that he is using 3D simulations to study how environmental conditions affect fern populations over multiple generations. The video panned out over many fields of virtual ferns that help Duffy understand the plant populations.

"Each fern possesses a genetic code that controls how well it adapts to environmental conditions," Duffy said, speaking through his virtual avatar.

Another guest speaker, this one appearing in the flesh, was CEO Shenlei Winkler of the Fashion Research Institute, who explained that 3D modeling and simulation programs are reducing design times by 75% and sample costs by 65%. Winkler said the Institute is working on cloth models to more accurately represent different kinds of textiles and how they fit on the human body.

"The apparel industry is one of the last $1.7 trillion industries that has not, in fact, been heavily computerized," Winkler said.

The fashion industry advances are taking place with just first-generation 3D Web technologies, Rattner noted. Further development will enable all kinds of new applications and in the process create insatiable demand for high-performance computing, he predicted.

"This is the killer application infrastructure platform that will power growth and increase R&D capability in high-performance computing," Rattner said. "In my opinion there is nothing more important to the long-term health of the HPC industry than the development and widespread use of 3D web technologies."

The 3D Web will require cloud technologies to deal with load balancing, identity and authentication, content distribution, payment services and other needs. HPC, meanwhile, will have to contribute artificial intelligence, game engines, management of user avatars and how they interact with each other, and object and sound simulations powered by complicated physics.

Rattner showed a simulation of a large piece of cloth draping over a tall object, noting that the simulation involved 2 million triangles and had to accurately represent the effects of air trapped underneath the cloth. The simulation was performed on an 18-node cluster of quad-core processors. With today's technology, the compute time per frame was six minutes -- but to make such simulations truly effective for the fashion industry it will have to be done in real time, Rattner said.

The cloth simulation was also completely silent, with no sound when the cloth draped over the object or hit the floor. Adding sound to these simulations greatly increases the computing requirements, Rattner said, next showing a visualization -- with sound -- of water running out of a faucet and into a container, which then generates some bubbles.

The fluid and bubble simulation required 13.5 hours of supercomputing time, partly because the sound is generated by physics engines that simulate the actions of water. Eventually, these simulations will occur in real time, Rattner said.

Rattner also spoke briefly about virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, and said one challenge is ensuring that users' avatars can move seamlessly from one virtual world to another. Rattner said there is a "critical need" for interoperability. Just as Internet providers moved beyond isolated services such as AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy, virtual worlds have to eliminate barriers in order to gain widespread adoption, he said.

"If we can't move from virtual world to virtual world, we're going to live in this world of walled gardens that's very reminiscent of the [Internet] of the late 80s and early 90s," he said.

Rattner closed his speech by discussing Larrabee, a prototype Intel chip that he said will help scale performance for the 3D Web. In a short demonstration, Rattner showed that by overclocking the Larrabee processors Intel can reach a teraflop of performance, or 1 trillion operations per second. This milestone, he said, had never before been reached on a single chip.

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