Sometimes, technical conversations can sound like people are just making up tech-sounding words and acronyms: “If you want HPC to handle Gigaflops of computational operations, you probably need to supplement your server’s CPU and RAM with a GPU or two.” It’s like hearing a shady auto mechanic talk about replacing gaskets on double overhead flange valves or hearing Chris Farley (in Tommy Boy) explain that he was “just checking the specs on the endline for the rotary girder” … You don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, but you’re pretty sure they’re lying.
When we talk about high performance computing (HPC), a natural tendency is to go straight into technical specifications and acronyms, but that makes the learning curve steeper for people who are trying to understand why a solution is better suited for certain types of workloads than technology they are already familiar with. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a quick explanation of graphics processing units (GPUs) in the context of central processing units (CPUs).
The first thing that usually confuses people about GPUs is the name: “Why do I need a graphics processing unit on a server? I don’t need to render the visual textures from Crysis on my database server … A GPU is not going to benefit me.” It’s true that you don’t need cutting-edge graphics on your server, but a GPU’s power isn’t limited to “graphics” operations. The “graphics” part of the name reflects the original intention for kind of processing GPUs perform, but in the last ten years or so, developers and engineers have come to adapt the processing power for more general-purpose computing power.
GPUs were designed in a highly parallel structure that allows large blocks of data to be processed at one time — similar computations are being made on data at the same time (rather than in order). If you assigned the task of rendering a 3D environment to a CPU, it would slow to a crawl — it handles requests more linearly. Because GPUs are better at performing repetitive tasks on large blocks of data than CPUs, you start see the benefit of enlisting a GPU in a server environment.
The Folding@home project and bitcoin mining are two of the most visible distributed computing projects that GPUs are accelerating, and they’re perfect examples of workloads made exponentially faster with the parallel processing power of graphics processing units. You don’t need to be folding protein or completing a blockchain to get the performance benefits, though; if you are taxing your CPUs with repetitive compute tasks, a GPU could make your life a lot easier.
Hopefully, this quick rundown is helpful in demystifying the “technobabble” about GPUs and HPC … As a quick test, see if this sentence makes more sense now than it did when you started this blog: “If you want HPC to handle Gigaflops of computational operations, you probably need to supplement your server’s CPU and RAM with a GPU or two.”