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!

University of Stuttgart Inaugurates ‘Hawk’ Supercomputer

February 20, 2020

This week, the new “Hawk” supercomputer was inaugurated in a ceremony at the High-Performance Computing Center of the University of Stuttgart (HLRS). Officials, scientists and other stakeholders celebrated the new sy Read more…

By Staff report

US to Triple Its Supercomputing Capacity for Weather and Climate with Two New Crays

February 20, 2020

The blizzard of news around the race for weather and climate supercomputing leadership continues. Just three days after the UK announced a £1.2 billion plan to build the world’s largest weather and climate supercomputer, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Indiana University Researchers Use Supercomputing to Model the State’s Largest Watershed

February 20, 2020

With water stressors on the rise, understanding and protecting water supplies is more important than ever. Now, a team of researchers from Indiana University has created a new climate change data portal to help Indianans Read more…

By Staff report

TACC – Supporting Portable, Reproducible, Computational Science with Containers

February 20, 2020

Researchers who use supercomputers for science typically don't limit themselves to one system. They move their projects to whatever resources are available, often using many different systems simultaneously, in their lab Read more…

By Aaron Dubrow

China Researchers Set Distance Record in Quantum Memory Entanglement

February 20, 2020

Efforts to develop the necessary capabilities for building a practical ‘quantum-based’ internet have been ongoing for years. One of the biggest challenges is being able to maintain and manage entanglement of remote q Read more…

By John Russell

AWS Solution Channel

Challenging the barriers to High Performance Computing in the Cloud

Cloud computing helps democratize High Performance Computing by placing powerful computational capabilities in the hands of more researchers, engineers, and organizations who may lack access to sufficient on-premises infrastructure. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Intelligent HPC – Keeping Hard Work at Bay(es)

Since the dawn of time, humans have looked for ways to make their lives easier. Over the centuries human ingenuity has given us inventions such as the wheel and simple machines – which help greatly with tasks that would otherwise be extremely laborious. Read more…

New Algorithm Allows PCs to Challenge HPC in Weather Forecasting

February 19, 2020

Accurate weather forecasting has, by and large, been situated squarely in the domain of high-performance computing – just this week, the UK announced a nearly $1.6 billion investment in the world’s largest supercompu Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

US to Triple Its Supercomputing Capacity for Weather and Climate with Two New Crays

February 20, 2020

The blizzard of news around the race for weather and climate supercomputing leadership continues. Just three days after the UK announced a £1.2 billion plan to build the world’s largest weather and climate supercomputer, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Japan’s AIST Benchmarks Intel Optane; Cites Benefit for HPC and AI

February 19, 2020

Last April Intel released its Optane Data Center Persistent Memory Module (DCPMM) – byte addressable nonvolatile memory – to increase main memory capacity a Read more…

By John Russell

UK Announces £1.2 Billion Weather and Climate Supercomputer

February 19, 2020

While the planet is heating up, so is the race for global leadership in weather and climate computing. In a bombshell announcement, the UK government revealed p Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

The Massive GPU Cloudburst Experiment Plays a Smaller, More Productive Encore

February 13, 2020

In November, researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and the IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) set out to break the internet – or Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Eni to Retake Industry HPC Crown with Launch of HPC5

February 12, 2020

With the launch of its Dell-built HPC5 system, Italian energy company Eni regains its position atop the industrial supercomputing leaderboard. At 52-petaflops p Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Trump Budget Proposal Again Slashes Science Spending

February 11, 2020

President Donald Trump’s FY2021 U.S. Budget, submitted to Congress this week, again slashes science spending. It’s a $4.8 trillion statement of priorities, Read more…

By John Russell

Policy: Republicans Eye Bigger Science Budgets; NSF Celebrates 70th, Names Idea Machine Winners

February 5, 2020

It’s a busy week for science policy. Yesterday, the National Science Foundation announced winners of its 2026 Idea Machine contest seeking directions for futu Read more…

By John Russell

Fujitsu A64FX Supercomputer to Be Deployed at Nagoya University This Summer

February 3, 2020

Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced today that it will supply Nagoya University Information Technology Center with the first commercial supercomputer powered Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Julia Programming’s Dramatic Rise in HPC and Elsewhere

January 14, 2020

Back in 2012 a paper by four computer scientists including Alan Edelman of MIT introduced Julia, A Fast Dynamic Language for Technical Computing. At the time, t Read more…

By John Russell

Cray, Fujitsu Both Bringing Fujitsu A64FX-based Supercomputers to Market in 2020

November 12, 2019

The number of top-tier HPC systems makers has shrunk due to a steady march of M&A activity, but there is increased diversity and choice of processing compon Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SC19: IBM Changes Its HPC-AI Game Plan

November 25, 2019

It’s probably fair to say IBM is known for big bets. Summit supercomputer – a big win. Red Hat acquisition – looking like a big win. OpenPOWER and Power processors – jury’s out? At SC19, long-time IBMer Dave Turek sketched out a different kind of bet for Big Blue – a small ball strategy, if you’ll forgive the baseball analogy... Read more…

By John Russell

Intel Debuts New GPU – Ponte Vecchio – and Outlines Aspirations for oneAPI

November 17, 2019

Intel today revealed a few more details about its forthcoming Xe line of GPUs – the top SKU is named Ponte Vecchio and will be used in Aurora, the first plann Read more…

By John Russell

IBM Unveils Latest Achievements in AI Hardware

December 13, 2019

“The increased capabilities of contemporary AI models provide unprecedented recognition accuracy, but often at the expense of larger computational and energet Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

SC19: Welcome to Denver

November 17, 2019

A significant swath of the HPC community has come to Denver for SC19, which began today (Sunday) with a rich technical program. As is customary, the ribbon cutt Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Fujitsu A64FX Supercomputer to Be Deployed at Nagoya University This Summer

February 3, 2020

Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced today that it will supply Nagoya University Information Technology Center with the first commercial supercomputer powered Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

51,000 Cloud GPUs Converge to Power Neutrino Discovery at the South Pole

November 22, 2019

At the dead center of the South Pole, thousands of sensors spanning a cubic kilometer are buried thousands of meters beneath the ice. The sensors are part of Ic Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Leading Solution Providers

SC 2019 Virtual Booth Video Tour

AMD
AMD
ASROCK RACK
ASROCK RACK
AWS
AWS
CEJN
CJEN
CRAY
CRAY
DDN
DDN
DELL EMC
DELL EMC
IBM
IBM
MELLANOX
MELLANOX
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
PANASAS
PANASAS
SIX NINES IT
SIX NINES IT
VERNE GLOBAL
VERNE GLOBAL
WEKAIO
WEKAIO

Jensen Huang’s SC19 – Fast Cars, a Strong Arm, and Aiming for the Cloud(s)

November 20, 2019

We’ve come to expect Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang’s annual SC keynote to contain stunning graphics and lively bravado (with plenty of examples) in support of GPU Read more…

By John Russell

Top500: US Maintains Performance Lead; Arm Tops Green500

November 18, 2019

The 54th Top500, revealed today at SC19, is a familiar list: the U.S. Summit (ORNL) and Sierra (LLNL) machines, offering 148.6 and 94.6 petaflops respectively, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Azure Cloud First with AMD Epyc Rome Processors

November 6, 2019

At Ignite 2019 this week, Microsoft's Azure cloud team and AMD announced an expansion of their partnership that began in 2017 when Azure debuted Epyc-backed instances for storage workloads. The fourth-generation Azure D-series and E-series virtual machines previewed at the Rome launch in August are now generally available. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel’s New Hyderabad Design Center Targets Exascale Era Technologies

December 3, 2019

Intel's Raja Koduri was in India this week to help launch a new 300,000 square foot design and engineering center in Hyderabad, which will focus on advanced com Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

In Memoriam: Steve Tuecke, Globus Co-founder

November 4, 2019

HPCwire is deeply saddened to report that Steve Tuecke, longtime scientist at Argonne National Lab and University of Chicago, has passed away at age 52. Tuecke Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Debuts IC922 Power Server for AI Inferencing and Data Management

January 28, 2020

IBM today launched a Power9-based inference server – the IC922 – that features up to six Nvidia T4 GPUs, PCIe Gen 4 and OpenCAPI connectivity, and can accom Read more…

By John Russell

Cray Debuts ClusterStor E1000 Finishing Remake of Portfolio for ‘Exascale Era’

October 30, 2019

Cray, now owned by HPE, today introduced the ClusterStor E1000 storage platform, which leverages Cray software and mixes hard disk drives (HDD) and flash memory Read more…

By John Russell

D-Wave’s Path to 5000 Qubits; Google’s Quantum Supremacy Claim

September 24, 2019

On the heels of IBM’s quantum news last week come two more quantum items. D-Wave Systems today announced the name of its forthcoming 5000-qubit system, Advantage (yes the name choice isn’t serendipity), at its user conference being held this week in Newport, RI. Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This