The Business of Disruptive Innovation

By Michael Feldman

November 14, 2010

Like every technology-based sector, high performance computing takes its biggest leaps by the force of disruptive innovation, a term coined by the man who will keynote this year’s Supercomputing Conference (SC10) in New Orleans. Clayton M. Christensen doesn’t know a whole lot about supercomputing, but he knows a great deal about the forces that drive it.

For the past 15 years, Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has been studying how technological innovation works, how it can drive some businesses to succeed, and how it can cause others to fail spectacularly. Today he is considered one of the leading experts on innovation. At SC10, he will attempt to impart some of this wisdom to the HPC faithful.

Not a techno-geek by any means, Christensen’s focus is on the businesses end of disruptive innovation. In 1997 he penned his first book on the subject, The Innovator’s Dilemma, wherein he describes the challenges of managing innovation. Since then he’s developed a set of well-respected theories on innovation and has published a number of other books that explore different aspects of the subject. HPCwire recently got the opportunity to speak with Christensen to ask him about his work and how his theories can apply to the high performance computing industry.

From Christensen’s perspective, disruptive innovation is not a technical idea, it encompasses a business model that is at the heart of how technology is delivered to the marketplace. In a nutshell, disruptive innovation represents a new value to the marketplace, and it usually emerges as a simpler and less expensive alternative to established technologies. But it is not a market-specific concept. The way Christensen has done his research is by studying how the innovation process works in a generic sense, not by studying an industry, like high performance computing, and then developing a theory that is specifically applicable to it.

According to Christensen, there’s a basic problem the way world is designed; data is only available from what happened in the past. And it’s convincingly available only about the distant past. So when managers make predictions about the future using historical data, it tends to be very unreliable.

So how is one to predict the future? The answer is theory, says the Harvard professor. “A really good theory gets down to the fundamental insight on why the world works the way it does,” explains Christensen. “You guys are scientists and engineers and use theories all of the time in the technical dimensions. But now there is a set of theories about the business side that are very valuable.”

The group Christensen works with at Harvard has spent years developing business management models that can help predict which kind of product, service or company is likely to be successful and which will likely fail. Some of his students have had some remarkable success applying this framework to real-life situations. For example, one of Christensen’s student successfully predicted the demise of Google’s Wave communication platform, an all-encompassing web-based communication tool that the search giant put on the shelf after just four months of user trial.

The HPC business, of course, lives and breathes in a world of disruptive technologies. From the “Attack of the Killer Micros” that all but wiped out custom processor-based supercomputing in the 1990s, to today’s emergence of general-purpose GPU computing, HPC seems especially prone to being reshaped by simpler technologies from below.

Which may explain why even established HPC players like IBM, Cray, and HP often struggle to make their supercomputing businesses profitable. The challenge for the industry leaders is that they need sustaining technologies to maintain their business model, says Christensen. Disruptive technologies are not good fits for market leaders, since these companies tend to cater to customers high up the food chain. In other words, the IBMs of the world need to continually create higher value products to feed their best clients. Alternatively, they can acquire other companies whose products match their existing customer base.

Christensen’s theories actually predict this type of business interaction quite well. For example, in the 1960s, X-ray technology was the only device that let doctors people peer inside the body. But in 1971, a British company called EMI launched computed tomography (CT), a high end technology which delivered superior imaging technology since it revealed soft tissues as well. Within a year the leaders of the X-ray technology — GE, Siemens and Phillips — developed better CT technology than EMI and eventually drove them out of business.

The next medical imaging technology was Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which turned out to be any even better way to look at certain structures inside the body. But again, the early developers of MRI technology were overtaken by GE, Siemens, and Phillips. For both CT and MRI devices, the established companies found they could sell them for even better profits than X-ray machines.

On the other hand, when ultrasound technology was developed, that was a different story. Ultrasound didn’t produce crystal clear images, but the devices were inexpensive and simple to operate. Therefore it could be purchased and used as standard equipment for doctors’ offices. GE, Siemens and Phillips bypassed the ultrasound market because the financial incentives were wrong for their business structure. So a whole new set of vendors emerged for ultrasound products. It was a true disruptive innovation.

If Christensen models had been applied to startups like ClearSpeed or SiCortex, they might have revealed the technologies they developed, as good as they were, did not fit the disruptive profile at all and also did not offer a sustaining technology for larger vendors. His theories might also have predicted the recent rash of HPC software tool acquisitions of Cilk Arts, Interactive Supercomputing, RapidMind, TotalView Technologies, Visual Numerics, and Acumem. All of these tool companies had sustaining technologies of value to the larger buyers, in this case, Intel, Microsoft, and Rogue Wave Software.

So what’s the next big disruptive technology? Christensen thinks it could very well be cloud computing. According to him, the cloud is setting itself up the be a countervailing force that will cut across the mainframe and high-end computing. As such, it has the potential to usurp the established business model of HPC. “The supercomputer leaders should watch out,” he warns.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Hyperion: HPC Server Market Ekes 1 Percent Gain in 2020, Storage Poised for ‘Tipping Point’

May 12, 2021

The HPC User Forum meeting taking place virtually this week (May 11-13) kicked off with Hyperion Research’s market update, covering the 2020 period. Although the HPC server market had been facing a 6.7 percent COVID-re Read more…

Finland’s CSC Chronicles the COVID Research Performed on Its ‘Puhti’ Supercomputer

May 11, 2021

CSC, Finland’s IT Center for Science, is home to a variety of computing resources, including the 1.7 petaflops Puhti supercomputer. The 682-node, Intel Cascade Lake-powered system, which places about halfway down the T Read more…

IBM Debuts Qiskit Runtime for Quantum Computing; Reports Dramatic Speed-up

May 11, 2021

In conjunction with its virtual Think event, IBM today introduced an enhanced Qiskit Runtime Software for quantum computing, which it says demonstrated 120x speedup in simulating molecules. Qiskit is IBM’s quantum soft Read more…

AMD Chipmaker TSMC to Use AMD Chips for Chipmaking

May 8, 2021

TSMC has tapped AMD to support its major manufacturing and R&D workloads. AMD will provide its Epyc Rome 7702P CPUs – with 64 cores operating at a base clock of 2.0GHz – implemented in HPE's single-socket ProLian Read more…

Supercomputer Research Tracks the Loss of the World’s Glaciers

May 7, 2021

British Columbia – which is over twice the size of California – contains around 17,000 glaciers that cover three percent of its landmass. These glaciers are crucial for the Canadian province, which relies on its many Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

FLYING WHALES runs CFD workloads 15 times faster on AWS

FLYING WHALES is a French startup that is developing a 60-ton payload cargo airship for the heavy lift and outsize cargo market. The project was born out of France’s ambition to provide efficient, environmentally friendly transportation for collecting wood in remote areas. Read more…

Meet Dell’s Pete Manca, an HPCwire Person to Watch in 2021

May 7, 2021

Pete Manca heads up Dell's newly formed HPC and AI leadership group. As senior vice president of the integrated solutions engineering team, he is focused on custom design, technology alliances, high-performance computing Read more…

Hyperion: HPC Server Market Ekes 1 Percent Gain in 2020, Storage Poised for ‘Tipping Point’

May 12, 2021

The HPC User Forum meeting taking place virtually this week (May 11-13) kicked off with Hyperion Research’s market update, covering the 2020 period. Although Read more…

IBM Debuts Qiskit Runtime for Quantum Computing; Reports Dramatic Speed-up

May 11, 2021

In conjunction with its virtual Think event, IBM today introduced an enhanced Qiskit Runtime Software for quantum computing, which it says demonstrated 120x spe Read more…

AMD Chipmaker TSMC to Use AMD Chips for Chipmaking

May 8, 2021

TSMC has tapped AMD to support its major manufacturing and R&D workloads. AMD will provide its Epyc Rome 7702P CPUs – with 64 cores operating at a base cl Read more…

Fast Pass Through (Some of) the Quantum Landscape with ORNL’s Raphael Pooser

May 7, 2021

In a rather remarkable way, and despite the frequent hype, the behind-the-scenes work of developing quantum computing has dramatically accelerated in the past f Read more…

IBM Research Debuts 2nm Test Chip with 50 Billion Transistors

May 6, 2021

IBM Research today announced the successful prototyping of the world's first 2 nanometer chip, fabricated with silicon nanosheet technology on a standard 300mm Read more…

LRZ Announces New Phase of SuperMUC-NG Supercomputer with Intel’s ‘Ponte Vecchio’ GPU

May 5, 2021

At the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) in München, Germany – one of the constituent centers of the Gauss Centre for Supercomputing (GCS) – the SuperMUC Read more…

Crystal Ball Gazing at Nvidia: R&D Chief Bill Dally Talks Targets and Approach

May 4, 2021

There’s no quibbling with Nvidia’s success. Entrenched atop the GPU market, Nvidia has ridden its own inventiveness and growing demand for accelerated computing to meet the needs of HPC and AI. Recently it embarked on an ambitious expansion by acquiring Mellanox (interconnect)... Read more…

Intel Invests $3.5 Billion in New Mexico Fab to Focus on Foveros Packaging Technology

May 3, 2021

Intel announced it is investing $3.5 billion in its Rio Rancho, New Mexico, facility to support its advanced 3D manufacturing and packaging technology, Foveros. Read more…

Julia Update: Adoption Keeps Climbing; Is It a Python Challenger?

January 13, 2021

The rapid adoption of Julia, the open source, high level programing language with roots at MIT, shows no sign of slowing according to data from Julialang.org. I Read more…

AMD Chipmaker TSMC to Use AMD Chips for Chipmaking

May 8, 2021

TSMC has tapped AMD to support its major manufacturing and R&D workloads. AMD will provide its Epyc Rome 7702P CPUs – with 64 cores operating at a base cl Read more…

Intel Launches 10nm ‘Ice Lake’ Datacenter CPU with Up to 40 Cores

April 6, 2021

The wait is over. Today Intel officially launched its 10nm datacenter CPU, the third-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processor, codenamed Ice Lake. With up to 40 Read more…

CERN Is Betting Big on Exascale

April 1, 2021

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) involves 23 countries, 15,000 researchers, billions of dollars a year, and the biggest machine in the worl Read more…

HPE Launches Storage Line Loaded with IBM’s Spectrum Scale File System

April 6, 2021

HPE today launched a new family of storage solutions bundled with IBM’s Spectrum Scale Erasure Code Edition parallel file system (description below) and featu Read more…

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

Saudi Aramco Unveils Dammam 7, Its New Top Ten Supercomputer

January 21, 2021

By revenue, oil and gas giant Saudi Aramco is one of the largest companies in the world, and it has historically employed commensurate amounts of supercomputing Read more…

Quantum Computer Start-up IonQ Plans IPO via SPAC

March 8, 2021

IonQ, a Maryland-based quantum computing start-up working with ion trap technology, plans to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) merger a Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Can Deep Learning Replace Numerical Weather Prediction?

March 3, 2021

Numerical weather prediction (NWP) is a mainstay of supercomputing. Some of the first applications of the first supercomputers dealt with climate modeling, and Read more…

AMD Launches Epyc ‘Milan’ with 19 SKUs for HPC, Enterprise and Hyperscale

March 15, 2021

At a virtual launch event held today (Monday), AMD revealed its third-generation Epyc “Milan” CPU lineup: a set of 19 SKUs -- including the flagship 64-core, 280-watt 7763 part --  aimed at HPC, enterprise and cloud workloads. Notably, the third-gen Epyc Milan chips achieve 19 percent... Read more…

Livermore’s El Capitan Supercomputer to Debut HPE ‘Rabbit’ Near Node Local Storage

February 18, 2021

A near node local storage innovation called Rabbit factored heavily into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s decision to select Cray’s proposal for its CORAL-2 machine, the lab’s first exascale-class supercomputer, El Capitan. Details of this new storage technology were revealed... Read more…

African Supercomputing Center Inaugurates ‘Toubkal,’ Most Powerful Supercomputer on the Continent

February 25, 2021

Historically, Africa hasn’t exactly been synonymous with supercomputing. There are only a handful of supercomputers on the continent, with few ranking on the Read more…

GTC21: Nvidia Launches cuQuantum; Dips a Toe in Quantum Computing

April 13, 2021

Yesterday Nvidia officially dipped a toe into quantum computing with the launch of cuQuantum SDK, a development platform for simulating quantum circuits on GPU-accelerated systems. As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang emphasized in his keynote, Nvidia doesn’t plan to build... Read more…

New Deep Learning Algorithm Solves Rubik’s Cube

July 25, 2018

Solving (and attempting to solve) Rubik’s Cube has delighted millions of puzzle lovers since 1974 when the cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor and archite Read more…

The History of Supercomputing vs. COVID-19

March 9, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a greater challenge to the high-performance computing community than any before. HPCwire's coverage of the supercomputing response t Read more…

HPE Names Justin Hotard New HPC Chief as Pete Ungaro Departs

March 2, 2021

HPE CEO Antonio Neri announced today (March 2, 2021) the appointment of Justin Hotard as general manager of HPC, mission critical solutions and labs, effective Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire