Why HPC Matters

By Tiffany Trader

November 19, 2014

When the SC14 show floor opened in New Orleans Monday night, signage everywhere proclaimed this year’s theme: HPC Matters. The new program, first announced at last year’s show in Denver, is all about broader engagement. It’s about getting the word out to the public – to policymakers, educators and regular people – about the role HPC plays in helping humanity solve its hardest problems. But it’s also a reminder for this sometimes niche-oriented community to take stock of their collective accomplishments.

HPC may be daunting to the uninitiated, but it’s touching ordinary folks in ways they may not even realize. To drive home this point, the SC committee welcomed Dr. Eng Lim Goh, senior vice president CTO of SGI, and Dr. Piyush Mehrotra, chief of the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) Division, to present at the very first HPC Matters plenary, in tandem with the event launch on Monday night. In keeping with the theme of community, the plenary was open and free to the general public.

In the words of HPC Matters Chair Wilfred Pinfold who spoke at the event, “the plenary session marks the start of a new communications campaign to highlight the extraordinary value that investments in computational simulation and modeling bring to every man, woman and child on the planet.”

The compelling presentation shed light on some of the most profound HPC use cases of our time, spanning nearly every aspect of society and ranging from advanced manufacturing to disaster warning systems to improving care for cancer patients. Dr. Goh makes the case that whether it’s meeting basic needs, reducing hardships, promoting industry or answering the profound questions of the universe, HPC is there.

Life on Earth

It is a basic fact that without potable water, people can’t survive. Despite over 70 percent of the earth’s surface being covered in water, 95 percent of it is off-limits for consumption due to its salt content. However, if you have limitless power, you can have a water desalinization plant on every coast, extracting salt from water and generating fresh water for all, says Dr. Goh.

Getting this unlimited power is the promise of fusion science, which despite decades of investment is not yet viable. ITER is one of the main projects working to create the energy of the sun on earth, and Goh believes they are getting close. Key to the technology is a magnetic confinement device, called a tokamak. Currently, the reaction inside the tokamak cannot survive long enough before it falls apart. To become tractable, the reaction will need to be sustained for days. It’s a turbulence problem that supercomputing is getting closer to solving.

Moving onto the field of health care, Goh recounts examples of how HPC is being used to diagnose and treat cancer, and also improve the safety of treatments. Researchers at Mass General Hospital at Harvard Medical School, for example, have developed practical strategies for reducing radiation dose associated with CT and PET scans.

“CT scans are useful but the radiation is high,” relates Goh. “The goal of MGH/Harvard Medical is to try and reduce the radiation dosage that you get from a CT scanner. 3 millisievert is what we get normally in one year on most places on earth. You just go for one CT scan and you will reach that limit very quickly.”

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans show which tissue is consuming the most energy, thereby highlighting the area of cancer, but to do that, you need to inject radiated glucose. A researcher at Harvard Medical is experimenting with using lower radiation levels. The images come back grainy, but by applying supercomputing, he is able to extract the low signal from the high noise.

Wider access to compute power is having a democratizing effect that is leading to some interesting use cases far from HPC’s roots. The United States Post Office, for example, is using supercomputing and scanning devices to sort through half a billion pieces of mail a day to ensure that the postage is correct and authentic. Supercomputing also left its mark on the stock exchange. After the May 6, 2010, mega-glitch, aka the Flash Crash, caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to plummet by about 10 percent, only to bounce right back, a researcher from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign collected two years of data and put it on two supercomputers, one at Pittsburgh and one at the DOE. The work uncovered a source of market manipulation that prompted the SEC to enact more transparent reporting requirements.

At the same time as HPC grows into new markets and segments, the traditional application areas are as relevant and vital as ever. High-resolution global climate models, for example, continue to push the supercomputing envelope. Goh spotlights some of the main findings of these models and the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the most modest carbon emission scenario shows a temperature raise of 2 degrees, he says, which translates into a 2-3 foot sea level rise. This may not sound like much to the layperson, but a rendering shows how severe the result will be.

SC14 HPC Matters plenary sea level rise graphic

Rounding out the session, Goh and his NASA colleague describe some of the remarkable space research that is enabled by HPC, including the search for exoplanets as part of the Kepler project. NASA, ESA, CERN and others are also doing awe-inspiring work peering into the deepest darkest recesses of the cosmos, in attempt to reveal a time before light. “How do you peer back even further,” asks Goh, “One way is to simulate that far back, and that’s being done by Large Hadron Collider.”

In closing, Goh issues this challenge:

“For those who are HPC experts, feel united in this, for those who are new to HPC, leverage it, make a difference with it. And because of that, we the HPC experts must remember this: it is very important to convince the few to get your funding, we must also work very hard to convince and delight the many, through our simplified explanation of why HPC matters, so we can get more people using HPC together.”

Expect to see more of the HPC Matters program through 2015 and beyond and if you weren’t able to attend the inaugural event, look for the lecture on YouTube in the coming weeks.

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