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October 5, 2010

HPC 360 Highlights Manufacturing’s Missing Middle

Nicole Hemsoth

This past week in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois at the R Systems-sponsored HPC 360 event, the “triple-m” combination of manufacturing and the missing middle was at the heart of discussions and presentations from representatives from a number of companies ranging from the mega-sized (Caterpillar and General Motors, for instance) to manufacturing supply chain providers, including Dassault Systemes. 

These conversations, coupled with presentations from Intel’s Dr. Stephen Wheat and Intersect 360 Research’s Addison Snell repeated the Council on Competitiveness-generated message about the critical economic role of the manufacturing supply chain’s ability to remain efficient and competitive via access to complex software packages and HPC resources.

In essence, the missing middle for manufacturing is the supply chain that feeds the large manufacturing companies—and it is this subset that is most in need of sophisticated applications and the computational capacity required to propel them. Still somehow, these companies remain left in that “missing middle” category of companies that require such resources but lack the expertise, and (or) the internal financial and developmental requirements needed to secure them.

To throw one more “m” into the missing middle and manufacturing theme, modeling (and its simulation counterpart) were prominently featured as critical backbones for successful manufacturing and product lifecycle management business, but nearly all companies present, even those who provide software solutions to these firms, were questioning the efficiency of their compute capability. While some were merely present to provide presentations about how modeling and simulation were key to reducing cost and time to market, others discussed the challenges of securing much-needed computational capacity when their current resources were already strained, which provided a perfect platform for HPC service provider R Systems (who again, was the sponsor for the event).

News from the Silicon Prairie

The “m” words just seem to keep mounting here, but there’s another crucial element that hasn’t been addressed—and it’s all about location. Enter “Midwest” as our newest addition to the parade.

Far too often, our meatiest HPC news items trickle in from the coasts of the United States and from major cities elsewhere around the world. For some reason, the American Midwest tends to get overlooked unless, of course, we start talking about manufacturing. It’s an easy thing to be guilty of—this accidental, mildly apologetic sideswiping of news from the vast plains, but it is lately been at the center of conversations about (and even within) manufacturing. Consider, for instance the Midwest Pilot program to emphasize the importance of HPC for U.S. manufacturing.

HPC resource providers would be astute to look to the Midwest for a potential customer base since this is a region that is in need of such resources, as evidenced by the pilot and related backing studies showing its viability. The pilot was the product of a summit and workshop, which was held at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in late August and was driven by the Council on Competitiveness. The goal of the small event was to lay the groundwork to create a program to leverage HPC resources for the U.S. manufacturing sector’s “missing middle” of supply chain feeders—many of whom are in the Midwest and define the needs that have been articulated by the Council repeatedly in recent years.

It’s not hard to see the parallel between the “missing middle” and America’s Midwest since oftentimes, that same term could apply far beyond conversations about computational resource needs. As the literal heart of America that drives forward on the production end of the innovation that filters in from our coastlines, all it took was one trip to a community like Champaign-Urbana (and the surrounding University of Illinois campus).

HPC for the Heartland

Given the era of virtualization and connectivity, it doesn’t necessarily matter where your hardware resources come from when they’re delivered in an on-demand capacity, but R Systems has discovered that more localized companies requiring HPC cycles are looking to them for support. Given that other resource providers with similar offerings for high-performance computing users are located along the coasts, this does positions them to be a go-to provider to feed companies in that “missing middle” category that are part of the stream of Midwest manufacturing suppliers.

One of the main benefits that R Systems claims is that they are able to deliver HPC resources on demand far more quickly than users might realize if they made use of a university system. Brian Kucic, who originally came from NCSA before realizing that users were not getting their computing needs met quickly enough and played a key role in the formation of the small HPC on-demand company, noted that potential customers like Wolfram did not want to wait in the supercomputer queue. He saw a need for such users with sporadic needs that was strong enough to warrant an investment in cluster resources to provide for such customers.

Wolfram Research was one of the first and more notable companies to make use of the company’s HPC offering, due in part to the local connection. Wolfram is headquartered in the Champaign-Urbana, and supplies mathematical software for engineers, researchers and other users with high-performance computing demands. Wolfram’s Mathematica offering provides some of the key modeling and simulation used for manufacturing product lifecycles, but the on-demand application for which R Systems was tapped is more in the experimental realm.

Wolfram Research asked R Systems to deploy their 576-node “R Smarr” cluster to launch their cloud-based Wolfram Alpha computational search engine. This project was aimed at delivering a searchable resource for quantitative material that would become instantly accessible and functional for users. While the concept alone required an incredible amount of compute-intensive work, Wolfram was unsure about the demand versus in-house capacity for such an offering. Thus they looked to R Systems, who then partnered with Dell to deliver the needed solution by upgrading an existing cluster.

The Wolfram Alpha case study is interesting beyond the clear marketing objectives for a number of reasons, including the short time from initial request to complete access to the solution. While reading case studies is fraught with peril, given the obvious lack of objectivity any of them bring to bear, for anyone trying to get to the heart of HPC resource provider business models and handling of typical large-scale projects on short deadlines, it might serve as a template for choosing solution providers and determining what is realistic in the expectations department for requesting an on-the-fly spin up.

It will be interesting to see how, as more on-demand HPC resource providers (and what a risk to take—this “if you build it they will come” business model) enter the space, the geographical shakeout goes down. Will companies turn to “their own” as they look to off-site companies to crunch and store their data? Is there inherent value in location alone if your location provides a steady influx for one particular sector in the same way the Midwest and manufacturing are married?

A Champaign Toast

There’s something about the term “Silicon Prairie” that at once seems a little derogatory (like it’s the hick cousin on the “real” center of technology innovation in the Bay area) but also fits the region quite well. The technology campus at the University of Illinois does seem a bit out of place, jutting up as it does amid amber waves of grain, but it’s also a striking, inspiring sight.

During the HPC 360 event in Champaign-Urbana, which was big enough to draw in some world-class speakers yet small enough to allow for some in-depth conversations, there was time to spend wandering around the old site of NCSA and the buildings that house startups supported by the Technology Entrepreneur Center at the University of Illinois. Here, entrepreneurs and companies that support them. Riverbed Technology, for instance, has an inexpensive presence, real estate-wise, but employs and develops student talent while getting really, really cheap highly-educated labor—at least compared to Silicon Valley. 

So, dear readers, behold—the Silicon Prairie, centered in the missing middle of the United States yet critical to empowering the missing middle of manufacturing. For companies looking for talent outside of the expensive confines of the Valley, perhaps looking to the region for what it might offer is realistic as the costs of doing business continue to soar.