Q&A with Altair CEO James Scapa, an HPCwire Person to Watch in 2021

By Editorial Team

May 14, 2021

Chairman, CEO and co-founder of Altair James R. Scapa closed several acquisitions for the company in 2020, including the purchase and integration of Univa and Ellexus. Scapa founded Altair more than 35 years ago with two partners to address the then-new field of simulation using high performance computing. Last week, Altair launched Altair One, a new cloud offering that gives customers access to its entire product suite — AI, HPC, and data analytics, and CAE design software — from a single platform (read coverage on our sister site Datanami).

An HPCwire Person to Watch 2021, Scapa fields our questions about where Altair has been, where it’s going and what he sees are the biggest trends and opportunities to across HPC, cloud AI and data science. The interview was conducted at the beginning of April by email.

Congratulations on being named a 2021 HPCwire Person to Watch! This was a big year for Altair with several acquisitions, including Univa. Could you give a recap of 2020’s major business milestones and explain how these acquisitions have strengthened Altair’s position?

This year has been one of exceptional advancement and investment in terms of how Altair helps customers manage their HPC resources, both on-premises and in the cloud. In addition to acquiring Univa and Ellexus, we released the most significant update to Altair PBS Professional to-date.

By combining Ellexus’ advanced analytics for HPC with the telemetry provided by Altair PBS Works, the Univa product range, and the Altair Accelerator suite, we now offer unmatched insight into job-level telemetry. We’re providing customers in all industries the tools to support a broader spectrum of HPC workloads, and to optimize their enterprise computing investments across new dimensions like input/output (I/O) profiles, storage, software licenses, hybrid cloud resources, and more.

Additionally, Altair continues to expand in industries including finance, life sciences, and oil and gas. We are also experiencing considerable growth in the semiconductor sector. Our HPC investments have augmented our technology and our team of technologists, further advancing the first-rate, commercial-grade experience Altair is known to provide customers across the globe.

While 2020 was filled with unexpected challenges for everyone, it’s been an incredible year for our enterprise computing business. We have seen demand for the optimization of HPC environments increase and expect the trend to continue, and even accelerate, as business operations resume a new “normal.”

You founded and have led a successful technology company for 35 years, taking Altair public in 2017 — what are your guiding principles for maintaining, innovating and growing the company?

Altair’s entrepreneurial spirit and technical prowess has propelled our growth during the last 36 years. We prioritize seeking technology and business firsts, from establishing a simulation-driven design method that has transformed the product development lifecycle to pioneering a flexible, patented units-based licensing model that revolutionized how our customers use software by lowering barriers to adoption and creating broad engagement.

We believe taking calculated risks and bringing outstanding technology to the market will reap the greatest rewards and result in our long-term, sustainable success. Altair leads the pack in R&D investments – exceeding 25 percent of our revenue – to stay on the cutting-edge of technology. Our growing list of partnerships – with companies including NVIDIA, HPE, Intel, Google, AWS, Oracle, and Microsoft – and acquisitions (acquired 30 companies or strategic technologies, including 22 in the last five years) give us a differentiated, open-architecture solution portfolio.

Altair has been putting the pieces in place for our customers to leapfrog their competitors through HPC optimization for decades. Since acquiring the PBS Works workload management suite from NASA in 2003, we have been building the world’s most comprehensive HPC optimization toolset through development and acquisition.

We believe the evolution toward a smart, connected everything is changing the world. No one is better positioned than Altair to lead that evolution through the convergence of simulation, HPC, and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.

What does 2021 have in store for Altair?

2021 will see the continued integration of our HPC optimization and workload management portfolio. As our customers apply HPC in new ways, CIOs, CTOs, and technical stakeholders are finding diverse HPC requirements converging on the same infrastructures. For example, this year customers representing some of the world’s largest HPC systems have already started implementing the new full-spectrum scheduling functionality available in PBS Professional to handle both long-running, multi-core jobs and incredibly high volume, high-frequency HPC jobs with the same workload management solution.

We expect new dimensions of HPC scheduling, such as storage-aware scheduling, to continue to gain traction in 2021. Customers have been telling us they have an increased need to manage storage more intelligently. We plan to expose more of our customer base to the optimization potential of considering I/O as part of their workload management strategy.

Lastly, we expect 2021 to be a milestone year for the convergence of HPC, AI, and simulation. The next phase of Altair One™, which provides collaborative access to simulation and data analytics technology plus scalable HPC and cloud resource in a single platform, is due out later this year. With best-in-class workload management and data analytics technology built right into the platform to make our software tools more powerful than ever, Altair One is the convergence of Altair’s unique expertise in action.

How does Altair help enable HPC in the cloud?

Altair has a number of solutions for helping customers get to the cloud: cloud bursting for hybrid computing environments, rapid scaling technology to align compute cost with demand, access portals for end users and admins, I/O profiling tools and migration automation technology, and turnkey, fully managed cloud appliances.

The Altair One platform is also essential to Altair’s cloud strategy, enabling a modular cloud journey for our customers – including the option to host everything from licensing, data, software, and compute infrastructure in the cloud. We see customers land everywhere on that spectrum, from spinning up virtual appliances to augment on-prem resources for special projects to managing an entire cloud-only HPC infrastructure – all via Altair One.

As a cloud-agnostic leader in the workload management sector, we find the expertise of our engineers to be just as important to our clients as the technology. Our teams understand the nuances of different cloud providers and can help our customers navigate that complex landscape. Our relationships with all the leading cloud providers are fundamental to our success.

How is Altair responding to the need for AI and data science solutions?

Altair has been leading the application of data analytics and AI to improve business outcomes. Our simulation and AI-driven approach to innovation is powered by our broad portfolio of high-fidelity, physics-based solvers, best-in-class technology for optimization and HPC, and end-to-end platform for developing AI solutions.

In 2018, we acquired Datawatch, and as a result we now offer best-in-class stream processing and visualization and the most complete data preparation and automation solution on the market.

On the HPC front, we are helping customers build infrastructure to support AI workloads, for example through support of Kubernetes via our scheduling solutions. We also explore the application of AI to improve HPC tools – PBS Professional has a “simulate” feature that enables you to make projections about workloads and predict how long projects may take to complete in different infrastructural scenarios, for example on-premises versus in the cloud.

By connecting the Internet of Things (IoT) technology with AI in a combined platform, we are streamlining the entire data pathway from sensors and other edge devices to autonomous control systems, digital twins, and operational decision-making. We give engineers real-time access to performance predictions and optimization for design and operational decision-making through digital twins using AI and simulation.

What trends and/or technologies in high-performance computing (and related technologies, like AI and cloud) do you see as particularly relevant across the next five years?

HPC optimization will become more multi-dimensional, with organizations going beyond scheduling for jobs and CPU and increasingly accounting for GPUs, cloud and hybrid cloud resources, storage, I/O profiles, and licenses.

Major new business systems will incorporate continuous intelligence using real-time context data to improve decisions. The lines between design, manufacturing, and operations will continue to blur as innovators seize new opportunities to apply AI and simulation data at every stage of the product lifecycle.

Exascale computing will enable new insight in areas including weather prediction, climate modeling, healthcare discovery and precision medicine, aeronautics, and space science.

Cloud adoption will continue to increase, especially as organizations apply new system telemetry and AI to automate migration.

Organizations will apply machine learning (ML) and AI to HPC to optimize for both time and cost to solution.

Outside the professional sphere, what activities, hobbies or travel destinations do you enjoy in your free time?

I love to spend as much time as possible with family. I also like to work out and golf.

Scapa is one of 14 HPCwire People to Watch for 2021. You can read the interviews with the other honorees at this link.

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