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August 18, 2006

Deborah Wince-Smith Previews HPC Users Conference

by Steve Conway

The Council on Competitiveness' annual HPC Users Conference (http://www.hpcusersconference.com/), which takes place on September 7, promises to be a watershed event this year, as the Council leverages three years of in-depth research on the HPC requirements of businesses and lays out its vision for addressing these requirements. HPCwire caught up with Council President Deborah Wince-Smith and asked her about the role of HPC within the Council.

HPCwire: Deborah, how does the HPC Initiative fit into the Council's larger innovation agenda?

Wince-Smith: The Council's innovation agenda is about driving productivity and the standard of living for all Americans. HPC is a critical part of the innovation infrastructure for the twenty-first century. To out-compete other nations, we have to out-compute them. Economic research has shown that deploying IT technology is transformational in many industries. The emergence of supercomputing tools, first for national security and later within industry, has been a powerful enabler for increased innovation and productivity. The Council's interest in supercomputing goes back to our beginnings 20 years ago.

HPCwire: How is the Council's HPC Users Conference different from other HPC conferences?

Wince-Smith: To my knowledge, no other HPC conference represents the business sector as strongly as our HPC Users Conference. We aim for balanced representation of government, academic and business interests. Another important distinction is that we look at things very much from the user's perspective. This has been true ever since we put together our HPC Initiative in 2003. The HPC Users Conference isn't about driving HPC architectures or technology paths. We're looking at demand-driven requirements for HPC tools across broad sectors of the economy. From the start, the Council's asked: if companies, universities and government labs had more computing power, how could this become transformational, and what are the barriers to accelerating the deployment of HPC tools?

Bringing together our HPC Advisory Committee turned out to be a pioneering move. Most of these leaders had not met each other, even though their organizations were all using HPC. We found out that Proctor & Gamble was using HPC for their disposable diaper business, and DreamWorks Animation was using HPC to set a whole new standard for animation. Before we did this, there was no baseline awareness of who was doing what with HPC in the business sector. Our user surveys produced new knowledge.

HPCwire: What will be new and special about this year's HPC Users Conference?

Wince-Smith: This is our third HPC Users Conference, and as in prior years leading corporations, as well as government and university-based users, will discuss their latest initiatives to advance innovation by using HPC. A big challenge now, though, is to bring the power of supercomputing to small and medium-sized businesses. This is where most of the growth in our economy comes from. During the past three years, we've brought together a whole new community centered on solving business problems with HPC tools. Bob Graybill's going to take that further by driving the formation of our National Innovation Collaboration Ecosystem, or NICE for short. This ecosystem will be available to businesses of all sizes, and we'll talk about this at the conference.

In recent years, we've done a lot of in-depth, baseline research on the HPC needs of businesses and on their willingness to collaborate with others. We're now zeroing in on understanding the dynamics of HPC-related collaborations and partnerships. Accelerating the use of HPC tools depends on knitting together all these assets and constituencies.
 
Some important government collaborations with businesses already exist. We at the Council are proud that former Energy Secretary Abraham came to the Council to present the leadership-class computing award to Oak Ridge. We're proud we were able to play a part in getting the DOE INCITE program expanded to include industry for the first time. Three of the four companies that received INCITE grants for this year are doing their work at Oak Ridge, and we'll hear about some of this advanced work at our HPC Users Conference.

There will also be more far-ranging discussions. We believe supercomputing is crucial for moving us into a world of sustainability and adaptability, with a balanced energy portfolio. Supercomputing is also needed more than ever to help meet our new national security challenges.

HPCwire: Where do you see the biggest challenges in creating the NICE ecosystem?

Wince-Smith: Renewing the talent stream is certainly one. Do we have the skills we need for designing more advanced system software, algorithms and the next generation of scalable codes? We also need to renew talent on the hardware side.

Another issue is getting regions and states to understand that this HPC infrastructure is crucial for economic development, not just for science. Having these assets helps entrepreneurs. There is a strong body of evidence out there to support these assertions, including the new studies on the NSF and DOE NNSA business partnerships that we'll talk about for the first time in the September 7 conference. Some governors and other state officials already understand that having these assets is important for attracting the best and brightest individuals and companies. We'll have an innovation summit meeting in California next year, and one theme will be the power of supercomputing. There are other states that also have a strong grasp on how HPC can help.

HPCwire: We know businesses have used HPC to design golf clubs and rice cookers, and to redo the manufacturing process for Pringles. When you look ahead 10 years, how pervasive do you imagine HPC will be in business?

Wince-Smith: Our dream is that there will be a national network for accessing supercomputing, analogous to Kinko's for copying today, and that our nation will have derived many benefits from this supercomputing infrastructure. It's very encouraging that President Bush specifically mentioned supercomputing, along with nanotechnology, in his State-of-the-Union address. It's also encouraging that DARPA, DOE and NSF are investing heavily in supercomputing. Our dream is that these and other investments will produce a national HPC ecosystem, and that 10 years from now, companies you'd never imagine exploiting HPC will be prominent users.

The Council also has a strong belief in twenty-first century manufacturing. The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. is a service economy and can no longer be a manufacturing leader. We believe we're on the threshold of a renaissance in advanced manufacturing, where HPC and related technology can be used for rapid prototyping to negate the labor-cost advantages of other countries. U.S. products manufactured in this way will command a high premium in global markets.

We also foresee HPC being used to optimize supply chains, and we see HPC enabling advanced visualization for multiple applications in the health care and energy sectors. In the final analysis, we want HPC tools to enable people to solve problems that are at the heart of the human condition. We want to see solutions that unite rather than divide people, and that make unprecedented contributions to the quality of human life.

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Deborah Wince-Smith

Deborah L. Wince-Smith, President, Council on Competitiveness, is an internationally recognized expert on science and technology policy, innovation strategy, technology commercialization and global competition. She serves as corporate chair and director of several high technology companies as well as on boards, committees and policy councils of numerous national nonprofit organizations, including the University of Chicago Board of Governors for Argonne National Laboratory, the Council of the Woodrow Wilson Center as well as the University of California Review Committees for Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.