Russel Winder's Website

MaRIONet First Meeting

Entirely by accident (a retweet of something that I just happened to see) I found out about the first meeting of a new EPSRC network, MaRIONet (Manycore Research, Innovation, and Opportunities Network). The meeting was yesterday (a day I had free) at Imperial College, a place I can get to fairly easily – even during a tube a train strike. So I signed up and went along.

The opening keynote for the day was by Steve Furber and was rather good. He started with a history (by decades) of computing in Manchester, UK. This turns out to be an interesting list of firsts:

  • Baby 1948, the first stored program machine.

  • 1950s, the Mark 1, the first real computer.

  • 1960s, Atlas, the first virtual memory computer.

  • 1970s, MU5, not so much a first per se, but the basis of the workhorse computer for national and local government for a long while.

  • 1980s, the Dataflow machine, the first dataflow hardware machine – in the end not a success but led to all the software dataflow architectures so common today.

  • 1990s, Amulet, the beginning of the ARM core era.

  • 2000s, SpiNNaker, the beginning of real-time brain modelling, the beginning of small core, tightly bound CPU and memory, emphasis on routing small packets.

  • 2010s SpiNNaker 2, more of the same but totally different internals.

A couple of asides made the history fascinating:

  1. It was the Baby machine that got Alan Turing to be in Manchester, he didn’t write any programs for the machine but he did some of the documentation. He actually wrote some papers predicting the future of computers including that computers would have Gigabytes of memory within 60 years, and interesting prediction in 1948 with Baby having a few hundred bytes.

  2. IBM bought the patents on virtual memory from Manchester University for far too little money.

This viewpoint on the history of computing contrasts massively to the usual USA-centric history which invariably ignores any and all contributions not from within the USA.

The other main "take away" for me from this presentation was the need to move away from the multi-core-CPU–bus–Memory architecture we currently have, towards a CPU/Memory/routing network all on chip with no cache. The SpiNNaker machines rely on this sort of many-core approach to have a multi-level (NUMA?) architecture. Others have trodden this road, for example Adepteva, and indeed Intel with their 80-core chip. Sadly I suspect the world will be stuck with x86_64 architectures for workstations and laptops for many years to come, which will inhibit the progress of software for a very long while.

After a short drinks break, there was a period of lightning talks, attenders had the opportunity to "pitch" themselves and their work. Whilst the timetable scheduled academic and industrial, this was a fundamentally academic audience, with just a couple of "industrials", only one of which was really into the purpose of the meeting and the network as a whole. This was followed by a meet and greet, networking session, and then lunch and a bit more networking.

Adam Luqmani from EPSRC then gave a presentation on EPSRCs priorities for the next period of funding rounds and the relationship of network (such as MaRIONet) and what EPSRC likes to see from them. This was clearly pitched at the academic audience, who were clearly seeing indications on what has to be done in the future to obtain research grants.

The rest of the day got rather ruined by a fire alarm. However we then went on to a rather splendid supper and much informal conversation. Overall it was worth going to the meeting. Hopefully I get to hear about future ones.

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