June 7, 2010

Engaging the Missing Middle in HPC

Nicole Hemsoth

At its core, HPC’s missing middle is comprised of those who could benefit from HPC but who are blocked by the high barriers of entry (cost, difficulty, programming challenges). Those active in the HPC space already have been hearing about this concept for years, but for those relative newcomers, revisiting the concept of the missing middle, especially in the context of the more imminent arrival of HPC as a Service, is a must.

When Microsoft predicts this missing middle of HPC users to be close to 10 million technical computing users; when SGI’s CEO remarks on the “enormous potential for growth” in the same area, and a large handful of traditional HPC companies (and even non-HPC focused ones) are discussing ways to extend their reach and deliver HPC to a much broader audience — an audience that includes many who don’t even realize that a) what they are doing is actually HPC and b) they might be able to gain market share from implementing it for competitive advantage, it is time to reevaluate the importance of this missing middle concept once again.

As one might expect, at the International Supercomputing Conference last week, topics of conversation revolved around engaging users, but the TOP500 took center stage. While this is not to say that such an elite list is unimportant, it’s time to make the argument (or almost time, there’s room to debate whether this is all too bleeding edge at the present) that HPC is swiftly moving away from a reliance on the TOP500 as the core basis of might. Companies at all ends of the spectrum were talking about bringing HPC to the masses and furthermore, about showing how it is crucial to demonstrate to users of vanilla workstations what they’re missing and how what they’re doing already can be enhanced. There were real, vivid conversations about how bringing supercomputing to the masses is already happening.

This is, of course, done in part via the cloud. By removing the roadblocks, the barriers to entry in the elite space of HPC, the missing middle is engaged. In theory, at least. After all, if this were true now (and of course the technical challenges behind delivering this vision cannot be minimized — this is some ways off for the mainstream technical computing world), the show floor at ISC would have been packed with customers evaluating solutions. As it stands, it was difficult to run into anyone at the show with the specific purpose of buying — it was a show. Might this be different if there were more widely-available solutions for a drastically-increased number of technical computing users?

Found: One Missing Middle

To back up for a moment, the longer, original version of the concept of this huge group of untouched users that either needed or didn’t at first see the use for HPC was defined way back in 2008 by the Council on Competiveness. The group asked us to imagine a set of firms that have become experts in applying HPC-based modeling and simulation. Because of their technical fluency, they now have HPC at the center of their dominance whereas “a much larger group of companies has not advanced beyond using entry-level HPC systems. The gap between these two extremes, sometimes referred to as the ‘missing middle’ represents an enormous productivity loss for the nation.”

If you replace the word “nation” with more industry-specific terms, it is helpful since we’re not talking world domination here — at least not at this juncture. What we are discussing is the leveling of a playing field that was once so uneven that it was impossible to even glimpse those above. That great leveler is, of course, the cloud. Not as a concept, but rather as an early-phase experiment in making HPC broadly available.

It’s nearly impossible to argue with the idea of a missing middle given that HPC, while playing a dominant role in the ability for competition on a national or industry-specific level, is certainly not for everyone. This isn’t because there are only a few who could make tremendous use of vast compute resources, certainly — it’s that setting up a cluster and making sure applications actually function is, well…hard. Accordingly, use of actual HPC is limited by barriers to entry that have been impossible to upend barring supersized grants and skilled IT teams specializing in parallel programming, MPI, and a host of other precious talents.

The distinct domain of HPC has been at the high-end; the crème de la crème. Major corporations and institutions. Not Bob’s Super-Deluxe Engineering Feats, LLC. But Microsoft, SGI, Platform and others are counting on the needs of Bob. Because they believe that there are millions of Bobs out there, all of whom — if coaxed and addressed properly and thoroughly convinced that they have nothing to lose and market share to gain via first-time HPC entry — will line up, nay, snuggle up to the idea.

Okay, the Bob metaphor is a little facetious. But you see how the Council on Competitiveness viewed HPC’s potential a few short years ago — it wanted the community to find a way to make HPC the defining differentiator in a country or industry’s ability to thrive.

And if the age-old rule about he with the most start-up capital to invest in a horde of clusters is turned on its head then it means that the shop, institution or facility with the best innovation practices wins. Do you see the beauty of this? It means that creativity, invention, inspired progress is once again the defining factor in the success or viability of any user.

This is your economic stimulus. And it’s even being delivered as a package. Even if that package is something that’s been introduced already and is being reformed into more cohesive packages — i.e., Microsoft’s technical computing initiative, recent efforts by SGI to extend reach into this critical entry-level HPC user base, and the various enhancements and ways to reduce complexity from Platform, Adaptive, Univa, and others — some of whom are new names in this space altogether.

When Bob’s Super-Deluxe Engineering Feats, LLC beats out DEKA and long-standing engineering giants because the HPC playing field was leveled and the competitive element was mere innovation, call me. I’ll be nodding, smiling, and having a glass of chardonnay to toast the new, inspired world I live in.

If this was a refresher course for any of you, apologies, but after ISC and extensive discussion about what lies ahead in the future — a future that is still difficult to grasp and in flux — this statement about the engagement of this vital missing middle seemed like a critical reiteration.

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