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Big guns for hire: Supercomputing-in-the-cloud

Todd R. Weiss | July 14, 2010
Some companies are slashing costs and improving production by using on-demand high-performance computing services

Check on software compatibility

The biggest challenges are more likely related to software than hardware, King says. Many companies that use HPC systems have developed their own applications or have tweaked packaged applications for their own use. So how providers of on-demand supercomputing services work with customers to run their existing software is a key issue.

For its part, Woodward got started with on-demand supercomputing when it was invited to participate in a pilot project through the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute (ISI), where Graybill is the director of innovation. The goal was to explore how manufacturers could use HPC cloud computing services to improve their industrial design and modeling processes. The work was done under a $3.67 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Woodward began accessing HPC services through an IBM Computing On Demand facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It's a cluster of 256 System x3550 servers and 128 System x3450 servers with a total of 16GB of RAM, providing more than 19 trillion floating point operations per second (TFLOPS) of sustained performance, according to IBM. Woodward is able to use the extra computing power as needed, Graybill says.

The Woodward pilot project was one of four similar projects that DARPA funded in the past couple of years. The three other projects involved virtual metal forming for ACE Clearwater Enterprises in Torrance, Calif., chassis weight reduction for AlphaSTAR Corp. of Long Beach, Calif., and electromagnetic interference signature analysis for AltaSim Technologies Inc. of Columbus, Ohio.

Reducing waste

To date, the extra computing horsepower is helping Woodward produce new jet engine nozzle designs much more efficiently, while also reducing waste materials by 50 per cent, according to figures from the pilot project. Costs were reduced by $275,000 per engineer annually by using supercomputers to eliminate the need for physical modeling, saving more than $500,000 per year, the study concluded.

"The access to cloud-based supercomputing really does change how you design your products," because supercomputing expands your available technologies, tools and resources, Graybill says. "It impacts your time to market and your quality in good ways."

And because it's able to buy the HPC time only when needed, Woodward doesn't have to deploy expensive on-site HPC clusters, which would bring additional energy costs and require maintenance by additional IT administrators, he explains.

"It's sort of making a full circle from the days of buying time on a mainframe in the old days," he says. "This cloud computing is really driven by users that need additional computing capacity."

Similar kinds of public-private HPC projects have been undertaken through the Ohio Supercomputing Center (OSC), where businesses based in that state can get both computing capacity and expert advice to help improve their bottom lines.


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