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 or you can just respond to this posting.

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

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