Smaller companies eye supercomputing

The use of x86-based chips helps boost performance while keeping costs down

SEATTLE -- Golf club maker Ping Inc. is not a typical supercomputing user. It's not making airplanes, looking for oil or investigating proteins. It is, instead, a company with 1,000 employees that designs golf clubs.

But this midsize company may represent a big part of the future of supercomputing.

Ping is using a Cray Inc. supercomputer built with Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Opteron chips to run simulations of golf club designs. And Eric Morales, staff engineer at Ping, said supercomputing has allowed the Phoenix-based golf club maker to drastically reduce development time. Cray earlier this month announced Ping's use of its XD1 system, which can support 12 to 800 processing cores.

"It takes the development from weeks down to days, and it helps us get to market faster," said Morales. Simulations of product changes that once took a full day to run can now be processed in 20 minutes or less.

Morales believes many other midsize companies will turn to supercomputing -- and if the attendance at this year's Supercomputing 2005 is any indication, high-performance computing is drawing a lot more interest. As of yesterday, some 8,600 people had registered for the conference here, with Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates expected to give the conference keynote address tomorrow. Conference attendance is up about 10% from last year.

Gates' speech tomorrow "signals that Microsoft is interested in the technical computing market," said Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC. Coinciding with that speech, Microsoft is expected to announce an update of its compute cluster server operating system.

The fact that high performance software is of interest to Microsoft is recognition of a market that has reached $7.25 billion this year, a net increase of 49% over the last two years, said Joseph. The market is expected to continue to gain ground with technical and commercial computing users, "primarily due to the attractive pricing of clusters, combined with their growing capabilities," said Joseph.

"We are seeing many new users enter into technical computing due to the greatly lower cost of entry with clusters," he said, noting that many users are finding it faster, more accurate and cheaper work on science and engineering projects on such systems.

Price/performance improvements, due in part to systems using x86-based chips, are making supercomputing more accessible to businesses, according to vendors. The Top500 supercomputer list, released earlier today at the show, showed large gains in the use of commodity chips (see "IBM holds on to Top500 supercomputer lead").

Dave Turek, vice president of IBM Deep Computing, said demand for supercomputing is being driven by a number of forces, including the creation of new businesses that rely heavily on high-performance systems, such as digital animation and bioinformatics. Supercomputing "is also being driven by vast amounts of data that demand rapid analysis for real-time decision-making," he said.

Turek pointed in particular to RFID-enabled devices, which can be used to track product shipments, as capable of "generating huge amounts of data."

While enterprise vendors are making capacity-on-demand systems available for processing large amounts of data, Turek doesn't believe those systems will account for more than 10% of the market.

Ed Turkel, manager of product marketing and high performance computing at Hewlett-Packard Co., said high-performance clusters, ranging from 32 to 64 nodes (a node is typically a two-processor system), are being increasingly adopted in industrial markets. Microsoft offers its own cluster product, which Turkel believes will help HP sell high-performance clusters to more commercial users.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon