December 02, 2013, 1:57 PM — The big problem facing supercomputing is that the firms that could benefit most from the technology, aren't using it. It is a dilemma.
Supercomputer-based visualization and simulation tools could allow a company to create, test and prototype products in virtual environments. Couple this virtualization capability with a 3-D printer, and a company would revolutionize its manufacturing.
But licensing fees for the software needed to simulate wind tunnels, ovens, welds and other processes are expensive, and the tools require large multicore systems and skilled engineers to use them.
One possible solution: taking an 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 let it use 128 cores of the Ohio Supercomputer Center's (OSC) 8,500 core system. The cost would likely be anywhere from $200 to $500 for a 6,000 CPU hour run, or about 48 hours, to simulate the process and package the results up 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 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 firm, 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 model is based on selling licenses, which 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 supply chain partners on HPC issues, but it 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 are also working on agreements with major HPC software vendors to make parts of their tools available through an app.
Chalker said software vendors are interested in working with AweSim because it's a way to get to a market that's inaccessible today. The vendors could get some licensing fees for an app and a potential customer for larger, more expensive apps in the future.
AweSim is an outgrowth of the Blue Collar Computing initiative that started at OSC in the mid-2000s with goals similar to AweSim's. But that program required that users purchase a lot of costly consulting work. The app store's approach is to minimize cost, and the need for consulting help, as much as possible.
Chalker has a half dozen apps already built, including one used in the truck example. The OSC is building a software development kit to make it possible for others to build them as well. 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 it usually wouldn't be more than a few thousand dollars, a lot less than hiring a full-time computer scientist.
The AweSim team expects that many app users, a mechanical engineer for instance, will know enough to work with an app without the help of a computational fluid dynamics expert.
Lange says that manufacturers understand that producing domestically rather than overseas requires making products better, 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 HPC as a path to get there.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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