StartupHPC to Start Up HPC?

By Wolfgang Gentzsch

November 3, 2014

There is no doubt that High Performance Computing (HPC) is currently undergoing a renaissance, nurtured by governments, public and private initiatives, schools, and especially by professional journals publishing exciting use cases from engineering and scientific end-users. One of these HPC initiatives standing out is the recently founded StartupHPC, a grass roots community for STEM- and HPC-inspired entrepreneurs, corporations, VCs, government agencies, and support organizations. Its inaugural event will be a forum focused on HPC entrepreneurship and on how to become an entrepreneur. It is held on Monday Nov. 17th in New Orleans, where Supercomputing 2014 is held this year.

But to become a StartupHPC entrepreneur requires thinking deeply about end-users who start up HPC. The conventional HPC users are already part of a well-established market with a steady, though perhaps slow, growth. So the real opportunity is with either the new users of HPC who will be the driving force of the democratization of HPC, or with the so-called HPC-inspired use cases that are not in the HPC market but would take advantage of HPC technologies and expertise.

In this article, I will focus on the first case, which is the more accessible opportunity for HPC professionals. There are indeed millions of such unrecognized HPC users waiting to pace up the stairs to High Performance Computing: I am talking about the 20 million engineers and scientists out there who are performing long-running simulations on their workstations and even laptops; they now have an additional choice: buying their own server, or renting compute cycles in the HPC Cloud.

The benefits especially for small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) of using additional, more powerful HPC within their design and development processes can be huge; for example, better quality products, high return on investment (ROI), avoiding product failure early in the design process, and shortening time to market. Why then are most of the engineers and scientists still running simulations just on their workstations, although many are regularly dissatisfied with the performance? The main reason is that the alternatives are still coming with their own grand challenges.

The first alternative, buying your own HPC server, comes with high Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) as has been demonstrated by IDC: in addition to the cost for the server, expenses for staffing, training, software, downtime, and maintenance easily sum up to the ten-fold of the server cost over three years. In addition, there are often long internal procurement and approval processes. And for many, ROI is not clear, although it is expected to be huge according to a recent IDC study on ROI in HPC.

The second alternative for SMEs to experience the benefits from HPC without having to buy and operate their own HPC system is cloud computing. HPC in the Cloud (or HPC as a Service) allows engineers and scientists to continue using their own desktop system for daily design and development, and to submit (burst) the larger, more complex, time-consuming jobs into the cloud. Benefits of the HPC Cloud solution (which comes on top of HPC) are among others on-demand access to ‘infinite’ resources, pay per use, reduced capital expenditure (CAPEX), greater business agility, and dynamically scaling resources up and down as needed; or in short: better, faster, cheaper!

However, HPC in the Cloud comes with challenges too: it’s a new business and working paradigm, for the manager as well as for the engineer; security, privacy, and trust in service providers is an issue; conservative software licensing is only slowly including a pay-per-use or short-time subscription service model; Internet bandwidth is often not able to accommodate the heavy data transfer needs; and more.

It is clear that HPC in the cloud is an emerging and large market, one that will create a significant ecosystem with many players. One of the early companies that aims to accelerate the path to cloud is the UberCloud which provides a platform for engineers and scientists to discover, explore, and understand the end-to-end process of accessing and using HPC Clouds, and to identify and resolve the major hurdles. Since July 2012, this experiment has attracted 2000+ organizations from 72 countries, building 155 teams so far in CFD, FEM, Life Sciences, and Big Data. SMEs who are aiming to develop better products faster are invited to join the free UberCloud HPC Experiment to explore HPC as a Service, in the Cloud, or visit the new online UberCloud Marketplace.

The StartupHPC Forum on Monday Nov. 17th in New Orleans, right before the Supercomputing 2014 Conference, will cover several important aspects of building and growing a new company. It includes first-hand experiences by CEOs and CTOs who have just been through the experience, legal considerations, venture capital (VC) firms’ perspectives, etc. Also included is a discussion of market opportunities that seem ready for HPC. StartupHPC is a grass roots community for STEM- and HPC-inspired entrepreneurs, corporations, VCs, government agencies, and support organizations.

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