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Economic rescue: Can supercomputers help save the day?

A push to broaden access to high-performance systems could help U.S. companies become more competitive.

December 8, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - On the surface, all looks well with high-performance computing. Federal agencies in particular continue to fund the development of massive HPC systems, such as IBM's Roadrunner, which last spring became the first supercomputer to reach the petaflop performance level.

Cray Inc.'s XT5 Jaguar, another system bought and paid for by the government, also broke through the petaflop barrier this month and was neck and neck with Roadrunner on the latest Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers (see related story, page 12).

Thus far, though, the use of supercomputers for industrial purposes in the U.S. has amounted to little more than a petty cash entry in both the federal budget and the economy as a whole.

Market research firm IDC estimates that the public and private sectors spent a combined total of just over $10 billion on HPC systems last year. Supercomputing resources are still inaccessible to many companies that could benefit from the technology -- and perhaps use it to create new jobs in these tough economic times.

The fact that HPC's HPC's economic potential remains largely unrealized has prompted some universities and state governments to launch programs under which they're providing companies with access to supercomputing systems as well as technical help.

One such approach is being jointly tested by the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) in Columbus and the Edison Welding Institute, a nonprofit organization that does research and consulting work on welding processes and technologies.

Last fall, the Columbus-based EWI began a beta program that gives welding engineers at its client firms access to HPC capabilities via a Web-based user interface, with no programming required on their end. The engineers use a browser to input a wide range of data related to the joining of materials. The data is then run on a supercomputer at the OSC, and the engineers can view simulations that show how certain welds will work.

The EWI, which is building software modules to address specific industrial needs, has no interest in running its own HPC systems. "Our business is welding technology, not operating supercomputers," said Henry Cialone, the institute's president and CEO.

Cialone said that he thinks U.S. industries are just scratching the surface on the use of HPC-based simulation modeling technologies. "We can enhance the competitiveness of manufacturing in the U.S. with tools like this," he claimed.

The state of Indiana is also trying to help boost corporate HPC use. Last March, Indiana University, Purdue University and the state government announced a plan to make 20TFLOPS of computing capacity on an IBM supercomputer available to Indiana businesses.

Moving to a computing model like the one in Indiana may first require businesses to take steps such as having their legal counsels make sure that proprietary research will be safe on a system shared with other users.

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