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August 16, 2011

SGI Folds In CFD Business

Michael Feldman

If you are a user of computational fluid dynamics and thought the CFD world begins with ANSYS Fluent and ends with CEI EnSight, that could soon change. SGI has acquired OpenCFD Ltd, a UK-based company that offers an open source CFD package with the name of OpenFOAM. The idea is to bring CFD software to a much wider audience while generating extra revenue with value-added products and services.

OpenFOAM (FOAM stands for Field Operation and Manipulation) is an open source package of CFD solvers and utility applications for engineers and scientists. Launched in 2004, the software has been funded by support, training and development contracts over the last six-plus years. According to the OpenCFD website, over 100 organizations are now paying customers.

Functionally speaking, the package includes such features as fluid flows involving chemical reactions, turbulence and heat transfer, particle methods, solid dynamics, electromagnetics, and meshing. It also supports pre- and post-processing. The last major release in June, version 2.0.0, added thermophysical modeling, chemistry, Lagrangian modeling, run-time control features, and additional meshing support. Since 2004, the software has grown to more than half a million lines of code.

The OpenFOAM acquisition brings the entire OpenCFD team onto SGI’s payroll along with a commitment to continue the development of the software under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The deal includes the establishment of the OpenFOAM Foundation, an independent non-profit group that will manage source code distribution. SGI CEO Mark Barrenechea and OpenFOAM creator Henry Weller will be on the Board of Directors.

According to SGI’s new chief marketing officer, Franz Aman, there’s a nice cultural fit between the two companies, given SGI’s support for open standards and its motivation to sell hardware with as little software burden as possible. Beyond that, Aman thinks there’s a big opportunity to broaden the appeal of CFD software and enable researchers to contribute to the problems around computational fluid dynamics. “We see the community approach as the right and best model for this,” he says.

SGI has been involved with OpenCFD for awhile, having already qualified OpenFOAM for their cloud offering, Cyclone. SGI has also resold OpenFOAM training, a task they will now bring in-house, along with related custom software development work. “We just felt this was a great opportunity to bring our hardware, software, and services together,” says Aman.

While OpenCFD has kept itself busy with support and development work, SGI thinks it can expand this work through its global reach and broad customer base. Aman admits they’re not exactly sure how big the market is, noting that the 200,000 or so free downloads of the software don’t all represent commercial opportunities. Many of those are being used by academic researchers, but a good proportion are on the commercial side, in manufacturing and defense, in particular.

For those customers, SGI is betting that the comfort of a commercially supported version would have more appeal. To that end, the computer maker intends to wrap the OpenFOAM software with its MPI library, some other tools, and software support, and selling the product on a yearly subscription basis. Aman compares it to the model that Red Hat uses, offering Fedora code for free alongside its RHEL commercial product.

Although SGI is not quoting subscription pricing, Aman says, “From a total cost of ownership perspective, I think we are the most cost effective solution in the marketplace.” The subscription version is available immediately and includes the OpenFOAM source, SGI MPI, the ParaView tool for visualization, binaries, and support. Over time they intend to add more features, but will always retain the common open source core at its foundation.

Aman is quick to point out that OpenFOAM and commercial offerings like ANSYS Fluent are complementary technologies. The way he sees it, ANSYS offers fully integrated CFD applications out of the box, while OpenFOAM is more like a development platform where users can customize and extend basic CFD capabilities. In particular, OpenFOAM is useful for building unique solvers in cases where pre-packaged CFD can’t be used.

SGI runs into both types of users. In fact, says Aman, many of its customers run multiple types of CFD-based applications for different purposes. While OpenFOAM has the potential to coalesce some of the market, there will always be a need for shrink-wrapped CFD. “This is about growing the market, not about going head to head with ANSYS,” says Aman.

There may also be a large untapped market for CFD software beyond the usual suspects of auto/aero customers. Aman points to the biomedical uses (think heart valves), astrophysics, weather forecasting, and virtually any application that needs to model something in liquid or gas. Says Aman: “I think CFD is going to grow significantly beyond the manufacturing sector.

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