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.

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.

But Brad Wheeler, Indiana University's CIO, said that offering supercomputing power to companies as a shared utility provides them with standardized software as well as a place for hosting their application code and help in parallelizing it.

The role that HPC technology can play in economic development efforts was illustrated in August, when Louisiana State University and Louisiana's government announced an agreement to open a quality assurance center with video game vendor Electronic Arts Inc.

The announcement followed the creation of a digital media academic program at LSU that includes increased research into the use of visualization tools on high-performance systems.

Stacey Simmons, associate director of economic development at LSU's Center for Computation & Technology, said state officials want to build a visual-media economy in Louisiana. But first, she added, it was important to develop a computing, software and networking infrastructure capable of supporting that kind of economic activity.

Access to computing capacity is only one part of the problem, though. In addition, applications and other types of code have to be adapted to run in parallel processing environments.

Charles Koelbel, a research scientist at Rice University in Houston, said the school is trying to make training on parallel programming more affordable and accessible. As part of that effort, Rice is developing downloadable books, partly through a competition that challenges students to write instructional texts about parallel computing.

The contest is being backed by companies such as Chevron Corp., Nvidia Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. "These firms really need to have good people to help them do scientific computing," Koelbel said.

Purdue CIO Gerry McCartney said his school has set up a Web 2.0 site called Hubzero.org that can be used to create scientific research communities with access to technical resources, including scientific algorithms and interactive simulation tools. "We need to remember what made this country successful in terms of technology," McCartney said. "It was aggressive adoption of technology."

Earl Joseph, an IDC analyst who spoke at the SC08 supercomputing conference in Austin last month, warned attendees that manufacturers in Asia are using HPC systems to develop products -- a move that he said is already hurting some U.S. companies.

The economic downturn isn't helping matters, though. IDC has been forecasting that the HPC market would grow at an average annual rate of 9% over the next four years, to more than $15 billion in revenue. But Joseph said the firm is revising that estimate based on the current economic conditions and their likely affect on IT spending.

Nonetheless, the Council on Competitiveness, a Washington-based lobbying group that includes many large companies and universities, continues to cite increased HPC adoption as a major goal. In a report issued last month, the council urged the federal government to help "put the power of high-performance computing into the hands of all American producers, innovators and entrepreneurs."

Cynthia McIntyre, a senior vice president at the council, said that the group thinks technology infrastructure is similar in importance to roads and bridges -- and that it sees HPC technology as one of the nation's strategic assets.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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