France’s Jean-Marie Verdun Pioneers Energy-Efficient Supercomputing

Supercomputer Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

Supercomputers perform compute-intensive tasks to help answer some of the most complex questions in the world. How did the cosmos evolve? When is the next earthquake expected? However, there is a ‘not-so-super side’ to supercomputing.

Supercomputers are mammoth machines infamous for excessive heat generation, energy consumption, and adding to the e-waste crisis. The energy used by a 1000 petaflop computer is enough to power San Francisco for a year. As the world gets ready for the grand launch of exascale computers in 2021, we need energy-efficient systems to be truly next-generational.

In such times, Jean-Marie Verdun, a supercomputing specialist with over two decades of experience, has been relentlessly pushing green technology. An expert in open compute and currently part of HPE, Jean-Marie has advocated and innovated energy-efficient supercomputers since 2009 when the idea of corporate sustainability was still unknown.

Jean-Marie is a French national whose interest in computers began at a young age. His father was a computer engineer for the French railways and brought back home early drives and portable computers.

Jean-Marie recalls, “I was fascinated by these machines and their display capability that you could control. I grew up during the boom of the personal computer, and I probably played a lot of video games instead of learning from it. But I coded my first assembly code when I was a teenager on an Atari 512.”

Soon, Jean-Marie took up a master’s in computer science and earned a degree from Versailles University in 1997. It was a field that allowed him to think out of the box and constantly keep learning as technology becomes outdated every 10 years.

“I think computer science requires patience and the only limit is your ability to innovate,” he says.

Even during his student years, Jean-Marie was ahead of the times. For his master’s research, with Professor Oliver Temam, who currently works at DeepMind, Jean-Marie designed a cycle-accurate memory hierarchy simulator that could quickly identify bottlenecks within applications and make them efficient on superscalar architecture. Through his experience, Jean-Marie gained significant knowledge on code parallelization, code optimization, 3D engine technologies, and went on to specialize in parallel performance analysis and architecture.

Right after university, Jean-Marie joined the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in France as an HPC expert for the CEA/DAM (French DOE/DOD). During his time at DEC, Jean-Marie led projects which generated hundreds of millions of dollars and shaped the supercomputing landscape. For example, Jean-Marie utilized his computing skills to analyze and undertake a virtual validation of the safety and design of France’s nuclear stockpile. This program was aligned with the US Department of Defense strategy. In two years, Jean-Marie and his team designed the Tera-1 Supercomputer, a 2560 Alpha processors cluster acquired by the CEA. In June 2002, during the Supercomputing Conference, Tera-1 was publicly announced as the fourth biggest supercomputer in the world. Jean-Marie was only 26 years old. In 2005, HP wanted to upgrade Tera-1 based on the Intel Itanium chip and bid for proprietary architecture to CEA. Jean-Marie was unconvinced about this proposal and decided to leave the company. Soon, in partnership with his wife, he created Splitted-Desktop Systems (SDS) in France in 2006.

“I always wondered why there were no technology leaders like HP in Europe. Perhaps the best way to understand this was to create a company like SDS,” states Jean-Marie.

Jean-Marie Verdun and Guillaume Giamarchi installing a RuggedPod on the roof of the Splitted-Desktop Systems offices in Saint Aubin, France

SDS was a step ahead of other tech companies. Jean-Marie created systems that focused on lowering power and improving the computing efficiency of servers, without sacrificing performance. Hands down, his most revolutionary innovation is the RuggedPOD, for which he has been granted three patents. With the rise in big data, the need for data centers is also increasing. But data centers consume massive amounts of power and account for three percent of the global electricity supply. It’s essential for data center administrators to maintain a power usage effectiveness (PUE). The closer to 1.0, the better.

RuggedPOD is the first-of-its-kind liquid-cooled server chassis that allows micro data centers to achieve a PUE of 1, without any active cooling systems. RuggedPOD is a solution of choice for industry giants like the telecom giant, Orange. After this feat, there was no looking back. SDS was the first in the world to beat the 1Gflops/W barrier and break the world record on energy management with CEA and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

From the very beginning, Jean-Marie believed in the circular economy model. Every initiative taken by his company was designed to benefit the company, society, and environment.

Jean-Marie points out, “Hyperscalers need results in the decommissioning of several systems every year, which might have a resale value of billions of dollars. These servers, which are 25 kilograms of equipment couldn’t be reused because there was no industrial process or software in place to refurbish these products. This led to huge IT waste and increase in carbon footprint.”

To counter the challenge, Jean-Marie engineered the LinuxBoot project, which allowed companies like Google and Facebook to extend the use of their computers for up to 10 years.

Jean-Marie Verdun from Splitted-Desktop Systems at a CRITEO Meetup in Paris, France

With state-of-the-art innovations and a sustainable approach, SDS began to garner attention in the industry and won the prestigious 22nd 91 D’Or Event, organized by MEDEF, Mouvement des Entreprises de France, the National Federation of the Enterprises of France. SDS was then acquired by ITRenew, to a non-disclosed value of tens of millions of dollars. Jean-Marie became part of the 5% of successful French entrepreneurs who successfully created a tech company in hardware before the 2008 financial crisis and sold it.

“SDS has always been perceived as an unusual tech company in France. Initially, adoption was slow and one of the biggest challenges was convincing people. We are a business-driven industry and energy-efficiency does not fit into the business equation. The industry didn’t want to address its own trash management system and wasn’t open to transforming its own business model to sell refurbished machines instead of new,” says Jean-Marie.

Luckily today, global organizations are focusing on corporate sustainability, but clearly, Jean-Marie was one of the pioneers in this space.

At the moment, Jean-Marie is focusing on designing an exclusive new system focused on knowledge sharing. He believes that sharing knowledge empowers engineers to be creative, helps re-use existing designs, and lowers the IT impact on the planet.

Jean-Marie says, “Computers have reshaped the world, for the best and the worse. Today, the industry is facing a data management challenge which was not the case 20 years ago. Now more than ever we need a landmark shift to lower energy consumption and latencies in our computers.”

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