IDC: High-performance computing poses challenges for SMBs

Public clouds could help, but are still too costly

Cloud computing could help boost the use of high-performance computing (HPC) among small and medium-size businesses, but there are hurdles that have to be overcome before that can happen, IDC said on Monday during a presentation at the International Supercomputing Conference in Hamburg, Germany.

Today, small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) that, for example, design parts for the automotive or aerospace industry or work in the oil and gas or financial industries have a lot of experience using workstations, but are uncertain about how make the first step to a server, Earl Joseph, program vice president of IDC's High-Performance Systems, said.

"The majority of the work they do is still single threaded and single processor," Joseph said.

Just like in other areas, SMBs companies have to overcome a lack of knowledge about HPC. To get over that hump they need hand-holding of the type that allows them to solve their specific challenges, rather than a general HPC course, according to IDC.

Potential users at many SMBs need help to get started and explain to management what the benefits could be, according to IDC.

A related problem for SMBs is the cost of software. What users have to justify is not just US$25,000 for a piece of hardware, but a business case for $150,000 in total annual system costs, according to Steve Conway, research vice president in IDC's High Performance Computing group.

The main advantage of moving to HPC systems is better performance, being able to run a simulation much faster, according to Conway. A job that may have taken a week on a workstation can instead be completed in a couple of hours, he said.

One of the ways that smaller companies could take advantage of HPC is by using cloud services. In general, cloud computing could help companies offload some workloads, according to IDC.

The raw performance is already there. Earlier this year, Amazon Web Services posted a blog detailing how a company could build a "Watson jr" in the cloud. IBM's Watson is the supercomputer that defeated two Jeopardy game show champions in a two-game match. It uses SUSE Linux Enterprise Server as its OS and comprises 90 IBM Power 750 servers.

However, cloud computing is simply too costly for many SMBs right now, according to IDC.

One way for cloud providers to lower costs for SMBs would be to sell unused cycles in the cloud at a discount to HPC users, according to Joseph. If that happens, cloud-based HPC would take off much faster, he said.

Cloud security is also an area that rears it ugly head. For example, if you are developing a new engine, you don't want the competition to either get a hold of the blueprints or the tools used to develop. For some, the security is never going to be enough to run the HPC applications will never be enough. But for most users security issues are either solved, or will be soon, according to Joseph.

"The other big issue that needs to be [addressed], and I think it is very much a solvable one, is how you configure your cloud so you can actually to run any HPC job well, as far as the software stack and various parameters," said Joseph.

For HPC environments to work at their best, every part of the application stack has to be optimized and run the right versions of an application, according to Joseph.

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