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April 11, 2010

HPC, the Cloud, and Core Competency

Scott Clark

What does HPC have to do with cloud computing? Well, given that HPC environments are constantly growing, consume large quantities of fairly generic compute resources, and have both peaks and valleys in workload profiles, it would seem that HPC would be the perfect candidate for cloud computing, if only we could get past the barriers to adoption.

What I would like to do is present a series of blogs, intended to be a philosophical framing, not a technical roadmap, that will show why HPC is the perfect consumer of cloud computing. These blogs will be broken up into distinct topics in an attempt to create a logical progression aimed at having a common frame of reference. The initial set of blogs will address the barriers to adoption as follows:
 
1.      Ego – IT as a core competency
2.      Cost – getting more value for the same money
3.      Trust – a historical lesson
4.      Control – changes to organizational structure
5.      Security – perspectives on internal security
6.      Performance – realities of simultaneous optimization theory
 
Once we frame the barriers, we can then discuss incremental steps to get to value:
 
1.      Cloud enablement – transforming your environment, internal private cloud
2.      Private Clouds – external private clouds
3.      Hybrid Configurations – leveraging public clouds for appropriate workloads
4.      Public clouds – where and when they may make sense
 
This is the intended general direction, but I reserve the right to deviate based on input from the forum, any needed clarification, or recalibration necessary to stay true to intent of the site.
 
Having said that, let’s move into the first topic of discussion, IT as a core competency.
 
Companies need IT to be executed competently, and to control IT direction, but IT is not the primary product of the company (IT companies aside), and therefore should not be considered a core competency. We can debate tying into the primary function (core business) of the company as a criteria to determine core competency, but I believe it goes to the investment decision process of the company leadership. The primary drivers for the business revolve around delivering product to customers, development of new markets, and customer relationship management. When given the option of where to invest critical resources and assets in the business, executive management will be driven to primarily invest in the direction of the core business, and minimize expenses around all other aspects of the running of the business. Core competency would imply sufficient investment to differentiate the business from the rest of the world.
 
Further reinforcement of these concepts can be seen by looking at where IT is accounted for within the business. Quite commonly, IT is accounted as an SG&A function. This places it into the “overhead” bucket and it gets to compete with facilities, HR, accounting, purchasing, and all other groups that make up the SG&A bucket for the company in order to get resources. I only say this to frame the mindset of financial decisions. Given that companies are measured by how well they control expenses in SG&A (SG&A as a function of revenue), and that many of the components of the SG&A bucket are fixed or based on headcount, you then start to see that budgets for IT are scrutinized with a control oriented mindset, optimized on the cost variable. The R&D side is usually the “spend money to make money” side of the house, where SG&A is driven to control or even cut costs.  Having said that, I have also not met anyone who can flip between these mindsets.
 
In order to control costs as much as possible and to get as much value out of what is spent in the area of IT, most companies take the approach to limit change and hire resources with a breadth of skills as compared to a depth of skills in a specific area. They will attempt to limit change in order to get maximum value out of existing assets, maximize the ability to automate, and to minimize the quantity of personnel required to manage. By limiting change like this though, it defeats the ability of technology to ultimately deliver maximized value. Also, by limiting change, the organization is really promoting a philosophy of maintenance instead of development, and in doing that, many times symptoms will be addressed (just patch it up) instead of the root cause.
 
Additionally, by hiring generalists, the business accomplishes many things, like having the ability to solve any problem in the environment while minimizing overhead staff in addition to having the ability to have fault tolerance in personnel resources (people can take vacations, get sick, or leave for another position). The downside is that many times these generalist resources are attempting to mange the infrastructure, but lack the experience on new technologies that are brought in to properly manage them(they have not have the opportunity to gain experience). Solutions that they develop or integrate are more prone to configuration or design mistakes (doing it for the first time), are many times less efficient solutions than what is possible (not optimized), and are not designed to scale into the future with technologies that are not yet available to solve problems that have yet to surface. And finally, the complexity of the environment is growing faster than the capacity of the organization.
 
This is not to say that internal IT organizations are not excellent, that the personnel are not very talented, or that these organization don’t bring great value to the companies they work for. The only point is that there is more value that could be achieved, and that the company does not (and should not) invest in this function like they do the core product(s) of the company. How many times have we all sat in on meetings listening vendors explain to us what the “perfect solution” is, and knowing that they are right because we thought of it a long time ago, but just have not had the time, funding, resources, and priority to go execute that “perfectly”. Cloud computing has the promise to grant us access to that optimized, “perfect” solution, and next time, we will talk about getting that solution for the same price we are paying for IT today…