November 2006 A
High Productivity Computing Systems and the Path Towards Usable Petascale Computing
Suzy Tichenor, Council on Competitiveness

Technical Barriers

In addition to market and resource barriers, HPC users and software developers also face technical barriers that are impeding the development of more advanced HPC application software and underlying middleware.

Current HPC Software Needs Better Interfaces So That It Can Be Integrated Into The Business Workflow.

Businesses can increase dramatically the value of their HPC systems when usage is expanded beyond the Ph.D. researchers and integrated into the workflow of the organization. This means that HPC applications and tools must be distributed at the desktop to “non-experts,” i.e., designers, engineers, analysts and others who are more directly involved in the production of an organization’s product or service. The key to putting HPC applications and tools into the hands of the non-Ph.D.s at the desktop is better user interfaces that are easy to operate.

Integration of HPC into workflow practices becomes even more important as competitive pressures drive companies to shorten product cycles. As little as a six-month delay in product introduction can allow competitors to take market share and substantially cut into profit margins. Yet, because of the primitive user interfaces in use today, it can take longer to set up a problem than to run it, particularly as the number of processors increases in HPC systems. In this environment, even one day’s delay in setting up and running an HPC problem can significantly impact the workflow. When users are under time-to-market pressures, they tend to run smaller problems whose solutions may not provide the needed competitive boost.

User Dependence On Legacy Systems And Their Integration Into Key Business Processes Can Slow The Development Of New Application Software.

For many ISVs, the requirement to maintain and add features to "legacy codes" is tying up limited development dollars that could be spent creating new software with greater parallelism, or at a minimum substantially revising the legacy software. Given the limited R&D resources of most ISVs and the requirement that publicly traded companies must report quarterly earnings, ISVs invest first in projects customers will pay for today, such as modest revisions to existing legacy software. Only then can they consider higher risk, more costly efforts such as developing new solutions from scratch or undertaking the “hundred man-year investment” that is needed to correctly re-configure a complex software application like MSC.Software’s NASTRAN to run on hundreds or thousands of processors.

Integrating HPC applications into the business workflow can increase productivity, but it can also slow development of new software. Industrial HPC users often are reluctant to make changes to hardware or critical software after it is integrated into key business processes. Re-coding legacy calculations to achieve greater parallelism can change the answers by several percent. For many long-time HPC users, consistency in results can be even more important than improved performance.

Further, the business process reengineering required to make the switch to newer, more efficient applications frequently is too time consuming and risky when companies are under market pressures to deliver products to customers on time and within specified design and quality parameters. Dr. Donald Paul, vice president and chief technology officer for Chevron, explained that competitive advantage often comes from “how you integrate all of the applications that you use into major workflows, and how well those are integrated into and drive the way the business works. The business process structures that can be built around the technology are as important as the technology, and are in fact dependent on the technology.” While rapidly changing software or systems might be acceptable or even desirable in a research environment, Dr. Paul explained that it is often intolerable in a business production environment, where a single application must be integrated into a complex stream of business processes.

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Reference this article
Tichenor, S. "Application Software for High Performance Computers: A Soft Spot for U.S. Business Competitiveness ," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 4A, November 2006 A. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2006/11/application-software-for-high-performance-computers-a-soft-spot-for-us-business-competitiveness/

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