Thomas Sterling

Professor of Electrical Engineering

The Quest for Change

Thomas Sterling’s career has been about changing computing, and he’s not done.

Sterling, a professor of Computer Science and the executive director and chief scientist for the Center for Research in Extreme Scale Technologies (CREST), is famous as being the father of Beowulf cluster computing, which uses inexpensive PC hardware to conduct high-performance parallel computing. He also was instrumental in helping expand the use of Linux software, creating better usability for millions of users of the operating system around the world.

Now, he’s working to develop the next phase of computing. Sterling says it’s time for a change.

“Throughout the history of computing there have been many periods when machines were improving, and then there would be a new technology that forced everything to change,” Sterling says. “The method of using that technology had to be different than how we had used the previous technology. We’ve been using the last methodology for the last 20 years. The technology has gotten to a point where that approach has gotten weaker and weaker, and we’re at a point where in order to advance again at a substantial rate there needs to be a new method.”

Sterling’s answer is ParalleX, a parallel execution model aiming to overcome the limitations imposed by current hardware and software configurations. As it currently stands, software is unable to efficiently use the resources provided by hardware. Applications struggle to exploit the number of cores in a multi-core system, creating bottlenecks that slow computation and performance.

ParalleX can serve as a solution to the problem.

“What we’re doing, in a phrase, is advancing extreme scale computing,” Sterling says. “We’re doing so from the theoretical view, which is ParalleX, and we’re doing it from an implementation point of view, which, right now, is our HPX Run-Time System.”

Sterling says people have become so comfortable with the current execution model of computation that any suggestions that might change the way computing is done have been met with resistance. Sterling is undaunted – actually, he embraces the controversy – and says researchers at CREST are proving the theory to be valid.

“At CREST, we’ve implemented a piece of software that sort of operates like a light operating system,” Sterling says. “It is called the Run-Time System. That allows us to implement, even on conventional hardware, an unconventional execution model. The thing that changes is not making all the decisions up front when you start to program.

“In our implementation, the computer is constantly remaking that decision in order to improve its efficiency and dramatically increase its scalability — scalability being how many different processes can we use simultaneously on the job. That’s very important because today the biggest computers have multiple million processor cores. We don’t know how to use that on most applications.”

Sterling’s ideas may not be readily accepted, but they’re certainly drawing a lot of attention.

“Although controversial, the innovation of dynamic adaptive resource management and task scheduling runtime systems for improved efficiency and scalability is being pursued by IU and other research institutions, although with differing approaches,” Sterling says.

The ParalleX research and HPX development at CREST is facilitated within the School of Informatics and Computing and is funded through a number of sponsored programs by multiple federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense.

Sterling’s ultimate hope is to change the way computers interact with software and continue to push the envelope for computing.

“We’re comfortable all these old methods, but the field is very uncomfortable with the idea that there should be a new method,” Sterling says. “So, given that this is something people mostly hate, and it’s controversial, naturally, that’s what I would invest my time and effort into.”

For more information on work being done at CREST, visit www.crest.iu.edu.

Find out more about Thomas Sterling.