Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blue collar computing: Overcoming high performance computing barriers

The two major barriers for companies wanting to use High Performance Computing (HPC) to solve complex problems are the cost of implementation and the difficulty of installing, maintaining, programming and using HPC systems.
While there is no question that multiprocessor parallel programming is very difficult (and getting more difficult with each leap forward made by hardware), it no longer needs to remain a barrier for companies who want to make use of these technologies.
No, we are not publishing "The Idiot's Guide to HPC", nor have I learned of any top secret government programs that successfully implement knowledge transfer. There are, however, resources available for manufacturers with challenging questions or simulations which could improve their processes. We will look at one approach in this article, with others to follow in future blog entries.
The Ohio Supercomputer Center is located in Columbus, OH and provides the networking backbone for all Ohio Public schools and supercomputing facilities for Ohio Higher Education. They are a state funded organization which also includes researchers and programmers. So what does the Ohio State public school computer infrastructure have to do with your manufacturing plant? The OSC has also built and is actively growing a program called "Blue Collar Computing." This program allows industry to work with the OSC resources and utilizes their hardware and software for a fee. Since they are a state funded organization, businesses within Ohio get a discounted price, but the service is open and available to all.
There are a variety of services available to companies which can help give a business the leg up and over the barriers of cost and difficulty. Since they are providing services on a computing as utility basis, they are especially well suited for companies that have one time or infrequent problems they need to solve. A company can either bring in code they have purchased or written themselves and buy CPU cycles on the OSC hardware, or experts at the OSC can work with businesses on a project basis to develop new software which will then run on the OSC hardware. This solves some of the problems of learning curve, but even the COTS applications can be confusing and overwhelming to new users. With an understanding of this problem, the HPC community at large is moving toward building web portals, or easy to use desktop clients designed for a much more user friendly interface. OSC is no exception to this and are working with local industry consortia to find the general case problems that can be distilled into easy to use web based applications that use the power of Supercomputing on the backend to speed up processing. One example of this is a weld-simulation tool which is currently in production; they are also in the process of developing a material mix calculation tool for the polymer industry and a plant floor optimization simulation tool.
Not sure if parallel computing, clusters or HPC even makes sense for your business? The experts at OSC can work with you to analyze your problems, your code and even do test development and performance analysis before you make the commitment to investment. They have actively worked with industry in this way to bring their expert knowledge to the IT staff of businesses, leap frogging the decision making process for the businesses.
OSC is not the only state owned supercomputing center to work with industry, there are centers in other states currently engaged with industry. We will highlight the successes of these other centers in future blog entries, along with the recent partnership of national supercomputing centers with industry, for example through the DOE's INCITE program.
Have a hard problem that you think would make a great application? Have concerns or excitement about government and industry partnerships? Questions about HPC? Comment and let us know what you think.

Nancy Glenn is a manufacturing solution design analyst and a contributor to InTech magazine.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Life in HPC’s Fast Lane

By Nancy Glenn

How do you end up in Reno, Nev., when a chunk of the rest of the Manufacturing IT world is heading for Chicago?

I am sitting here in a lobby of the SC07 conference. That is SC, as in Super Computer, not South Carolina. Not the normal place to find a plant floor IT gal. Surrounded by computers with hundreds of CPUs, capable of many Teraflops of calculations, and IT folks who debate parallel processing algorithms between bites of conference pastry, you might wonder if I got lost on the way to the Rockwell Automation Fair. But the truth is, the use of High Performance Computing (HPC) has been growing in industry in the last few years. Not only is it used to speed up highly complex simulations, or to make Shrek render faster, it is also used by some businesses for Supply Chain Calculations. With such uses wedging the plant floor from both sides, it was inevitable it would leak down to the plant floor eventually. It has become so pervasive in industry that this year the SC committee added an entire track of talks and case study presentations on HPC in industry. From Boeing to Proctor & Gamble, folks in a range of industries are here talking about what does and doesn’t work.

So what is HPC, and how might it apply to your company? The answer is not as easy or clear as we might like. We will begin with some definitions and background, but that will be followed with a series of posts for those interested in following the HPC technology and learning more what other people are doing. We will try to look critically at what technology is available, what works and what doesn’t. What is still in development and what is production ready. Barriers for HPC, and models for overcoming those. And of course, how to meet ROI. Like anything else, this is a tool good for some problems, but not for others. Have a burning question or a topic you want to see tackled? Comment below, and we will either answer there (if it is brief) or roll it into a future blog post. We will also try to point out along the way where HPC just does not make sense. This is not about the cool, but about becoming leaner, faster, and more competitive. As a matter of fact, The U.S. Council on Competiveness has identified HPC as a critical factor in improving the flexibility and competiveness of businesses.

HPC is defined as any compute process that uses multiple processors in parallel. This could be a single muti-core machine, a cluster of single core machines, or huge multi CPU (potentially with muti core processors) computers that can compute hundreds of Teraflops. Problems that make sense to tackle in this way are ones that can be broken into small pieces, which are not interdependent and can be run in parallel, with the results collected and compiled in a final step. This could be many things from large data set sorting to digital image rendering. Many simulations are a good target for this sort of speed gain, as well as tasks as simple as histograming very large, complex data sets.

Typically, we think of HPC as requiring supercomputers—huge massive computers at the top of the class in size and speed. Computers like that are out of the price range of 99.999% of us, and silly even to consider. However, with recent technology advances, multi-processor computers can be purchased for under $2, 000. This puts them in almost anyone’s price range; now the biggest challenge is learning to program in ways that take advantage of the extra compute power. With tons of compute power at your fingertips, it becomes tempting to try to solve every problem by just throwing more compute power at it, but even at faster speeds, this consumes cycles of time—a precious commodity on the plant floor. We will try to look at how you ask the really good useful questions, and how you weed out the ones that will just waste time.

What’s hype and what’s not? Do the vendors really supply what they promise? These are all questions we will tackle as this blog moves forward. Let’s make it a community discussion: Be sure to comment, question, or tell us when you think we have missed the mark. If you are currently using HPC in any way, we would love to hear from you too. Be sure to comment or e-mail and let us know.

To get the ball rolling, you can contact me at mfghpc@gmail.com or you can just respond to this posting.

Nancy Glenn is a manufacturing solution design analyst and a contributor to InTech magazine.