This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY
At the recent Moabcon 2012 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, I had a chance to meet with many of the people in government, universities and private industry who run the most powerful computers in the world. The high performance computing, or HPC space, is doing quite well for a number of reasons, including the need to process big data applications as well the fact that many universities are flush with cash and continue to see value in purchasing these super-powerful computers.
One organization looking to take this massive computing potential and harness it to help boost the U.S. and global economy is NCSA, or the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this 25-year-old organization regularly works with universities and government agencies to help them understand how they can partner more effectively with industry.
If you think of the HPC space as a fertile ground for innovation that doesn’t get commercialized, you could equate it to Xerox Parc Labs – the organization responsible for many of the innovations we take for granted today. Xerox famously didn’t take full advantage of technologies like the GUI, mouse and vectorized printer language – it was left to others like Apple, Adobe and Microsoft (News - Alert) to bring these innovations to the public.
NCSA is a bridge that gets innovations out of the lab and into industry. In fact, it helped commercialize MOSAIC, the first Internet GUI, as well as Apache server. It assisted in getting Caterpillar’s modeling and simulation started. And it helped Microsoft prototype Windows HPC OS. But manufacturing is the organization’s sweet spot, in part because innovations are generally shared with other manufacturers and can be implemented across the industry. The goal of NCSA is to solve problems that can lift many boats at once.
Manufacturing has been using HPC for years such as in the automotive space. There are even consortia of manufacturers working together to further subsets of the industry.
In my discussion with Merle Giles who heads the NCSA initiative, he discussed how the resources in many companies are limited, meaning their HPC solutions are spread to the point where many users are forced to work with only eight, or worse, four cores. In some cases such as designing a gear in an oil differential using 32 cores, the process can take four months or more.
But since modeling and simulation is generally given two weeks in the production-line system, these efforts won’t ever see the light of day.
The good news is that traditionally only three government agencies were in the business of HPC until recently: DoD, DoE and NSF. But more recently the Department of Commerce has gotten involved and, as Giles said, “The White House actually gets it.”
He pointed out that the National Digital Engineering & Manufacturing Consortium has signed a five-year MOU as a public-private partnership targeted at using advanced modeling and simulation in SMEs – particularly manufacturers in the supply chain.
Merle explained that in many companies the distribution of cores is not proportionally greater for power users, meaning there are departments that need far more horsepower than they have access to. In fact at one ISV, he said, 90 percent of users have access to less than nine cores and 40 percent have access to less than five cores.
To assist the manufacturing world, NCSA has developed iForge, which is a purpose-built cluster to help business with HPC as a service. According to Giles, “We architected the machine to make Abacus scream.”
Giles went on to ask what would happen if instead of a supplier having to send parts like bottles by the trainload so a manufacturer can test them and suggest improvements, we had a digital supply chain with 100gbps of bandwidth between the OEM and supplier. At that point he asked why we are spending so much money on rural bandwidth when where it is really needed is between major manufacturing centers and major industrial cities. He continued by saying what we need is to introduce far more capability into the supply chain. And if we can do it for manufacturing, then we can do it for cancer, and then we can do it for biology.
The more I spoke with Giles the more I realized how much potential there is in the future to get some of the most powerful computers in the world to solve more real-world problems. The potential for better products and entirely new categories of drugs and other useful products is beyond our current comprehension. And if you think technology has changed the world immensely so far, just wait.
Edited by Brooke Neuman