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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

The OSC is also working with DARPA, Krishnamurthy says, to help smaller companies that are providing parts and equipment through the U.S. Department of Defense supply chain. One example is a defense components manufacturer, which cannot be named because of security concerns, that designs power control units for the U.S. Navy, says Krishnamurthy. Often the vendor couldn't meet strict bid specifications because it didn't have the resources to do component testing, so it would request waivers for such testing, he says. The OSC and one of its partners, AltaSim Technologies, helped by showing the defense contractor how it could simulate the performance and construction of very large power control units using offsite supercomputing power.

The OSC's assistance helped the company save up to $1 million in the development of prototype power units, says Jeffrey Crompton, principal at AltaSim. The supercomputer simulation work will potentially save even more if the parts eventually go into production -- as much as $100 million or more in savings over traditional testing, prototyping and manufacturing, he explains.

A nod to Amazon

Graybill says he gives Inc. the bulk of the credit for creating the on-demand computing marketplace. In 2006, Amazon began offering cloud-based computing services to businesses that needed additional IT resources. The online retailer originally set up its Elastic Compute Cloud 2 (EC2) on-demand computing service as a way to utilize and monetize its internal IT infrastructure outside of peak holiday shopping periods, Graybill says. "They had [that huge infrastructure] to manage the loads on their busiest days, so they had spare cycles to sell at other times. That started this revolution, in my opinion," he says.

But while Amazon tapped into a need among businesses that never before had such easy access to externally managed IT resources, the retailer's offering is not necessarily the same thing as on-demand high-performance computing. Specialized HPC systems like those from SGI and IBM offer better and faster interconnects between processor nodes and memory, which means they are capable of dramatically superior performance than the more general computing architectures offered by Amazon and others, Graybill explains.

"Not to pick on Amazon, but these are different systems for different needs," he says. That said, Amazon recently added more sophisticated monitoring tools and improved integration with traditional data centers for services like connecting an internal cloud with Amazon's offerings.

Regardless of a customer's preferences, Graybill maintains that on-demand HPC brings the power of supercomputing to those who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford it -- "to the disenfranchised, so to speak."


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