Here comes a supercomputing app store

P&G backs Ohio Supercomputer Center effort it hopes can help move its supply chain toward virtual design and testing processes

The big problem with supercomputing is that the organizations that could benefit most from the technology aren't using it.

Supercomputer-based visualization and simulation tools could allow a company to design, test and prototype products in virtual environments instead of building and testing physical models. Couple that capability with a 3D printer, and a small company with limited resources could revolutionize its R&D and manufacturing operations.

But licensing fees for the software needed to simulate things like wind tunnels, ovens and welds are expensive. On top of that, the tools have to run on large multicore systems, and typically only skilled engineers know how to use them.

One possible solution: taking a high-performance computing (HPC) process and converting it into an app.

This is how it might work: A manufacturer designing a part to reduce drag on an 18-wheel truck could upload a CAD file, plug in some parameters, hit start and run a simulation on 128 cores of the Ohio Supercomputer Center's (OSC) 8,500-core system. The cost would likely be $200 to $500 to run the simulation and package the results in a report.

Testing that 18-wheeler in a physical wind tunnel could cost as much $100,000.

Alan Chalker, the director of the OSC's AweSim program, uses that example to explain what his organization is trying to do. The new group has some $6.5 million from government and private groups, including consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, to find ways to bring HPC to more manufacturers via an app store.

The app store is slated to open at the end of the first quarter of next year, with one app and several tools that have been ported for the Web. The plan is to eventually spin off AweSim into a private company, and populate the app store with thousands of apps.

Tom Lange, director of modeling and simulation in P&G's corporate R&D group, said he hopes that AweSim's tools will be used for the company's supply chain.

The software industry's business model is based on selling licenses, and licenses for an HPC application can cost $50,000 a year, said Lange. That price is well out of the reach of small manufacturers interested in fixing just one problem. "What they really want is an app," he said.

Lange said P&G has worked with its supply chain partners to help them gain access to HPC resources, but that can be difficult because of the complexities of the relationship.

"The small supplier doesn't want to be beholden to P&G," said Lange. "They have an independent business, and they want to be independent and they should be."

That's one of the reasons he likes AweSim.

AweSim will use some open-source HPC tools in its apps, and it's working on agreements with major HPC software vendors to make parts of their tools available as apps.

Chalker said software vendors are interested in working with AweSim because it's a way for them to make inroads in the small-business market, which is inaccessible to them today. The vendors could get some licensing revenue for the apps they agree to sell in the store, but they'd also get access to new customers that might use larger, more expensive apps in the future.

AweSim is an outgrowth of the Blue Collar Computing initiative that started at the OSC in the mid-2000s with the goal, similar to AweSim's, of giving smaller users access to HPC systems. But that program required users to purchase costly consulting services. AweSim's approach with the app store is to minimize cost, and minimize the need for consulting help, as much as possible.

Chalker has a half-dozen apps already built, including one that could be used in a simulation involving an 18-wheeler, as in his example. The OSC is building a software development kit to make it possible for others to build apps. One goal is to eventually enable other supercomputing centers to provide compute capacity for the apps.

AweSim will charge users a fixed rate for CPUs, covering just the costs, and will provide consulting expertise where it is needed. Consulting fees may raise the bill for users, but Chalker said the tab usually won't run more than a few thousand dollars, which is a lot less than the cost of hiring a full-time computer scientist.

The AweSim team expects that many app users -- mechanical engineers, for instance -- will know enough to work with an app without the help of, say, a computational fluid dynamics expert.

Lange says that manufacturers understand that making products domestically rather than overseas requires finding new processes, being innovative and not wasting resources. "You have to be committed to innovate what you make, and you have to commit to innovating how you make it," said Lange, who sees supercomputing as a key piece of that innovative approach.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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