The supercomputer on your desktop

Applications traditionally handled by the biggest of Big Iron are heading to the desktop

Weather forecasting

Bill Magro, director of HPC software solutions at Intel Corp., says weather forecasting went through a major evolution in the past two decades, crossing a line from providing just a general idea of weather patterns to showing fine-grained details, such as the details of individual storm cells. This happened mostly because the immense data sets required for weather forecasting can now sit within the desktop's memory, and the processing also can finally keep pace.

Special effects on the desktop

Even though the movie industry still relies on traditional high-performance computing to render special effects, Hollywood was an early adopter of 64-bit workstations to help offload some of that work onto the desktop.

The special effects in movies like 2012 and Avatar usually require incredible processing power. There's an obvious difference between an animated waterfall that looks computer-generated (and made with consumer software) and one that looks realistic. Companies such as Industrial Light and Magic, Uncharted Territory and Dreamworks rely on vast computing clusters and server farms for rendering. A single frame of video can take hours to render.

CGI effects are still compute-intensive: In just one scene in which techniques are used to make light flow evenly over an object and then move in unison with a camera, there are millions of pixels on the screen at the same time. Bruno Sargeant, the film and TV industry manager at Autodesk, says shader models -- which act like a catalyst for pixels and use mathematical algorithms to make pixels move realistically -- are also helping.

But high-end workstations are starting to make their mark. Both Adobe Systems Inc., with its 64-bit Mercury rendering engine, and Autodesk, with an application called Smoke that's coming out in mid-November for Mac Pro computers, are leading the charge to make CGI effects work well on desktop computers, without the need for a massive server farm or cluster. Sargeant says the planets have aligned just recently with much faster bus speeds, multicore processing, solid-state drives and GPU acceleration.

"This area is extremely competitive," says Bjorn Andersson, an analyst at Artair Group, a business development consultancy in Sweden. "The success of some movies relies on what level of groundbreaking effects they are the first ones to use. That in turn depends on two factors -- access to raw compute power and developing new software functionality."

Today, portions of weather simulations for meteorological use can run on desktop computers at local television stations, not just at the government agencies that monitor weather.

Such modeling is extremely complicated because weather occurs in open 3D space and there are millions of variables for temperature, location, wind and other factors. Weather models take the spatial extent -- say, a 5-kilometer grid with one data point for each 5km in each direction -- and then "shrink it down to 1km and then down to 500 meters," Magro explains. "Because you are shrinking in three dimensions, the computational requirement goes up by a factor of eight. It's not that there is more data, but you are modeling with more detail. It really does come down to having enough RAM and enough computer power."

The desktop is already being used for weather simulations at some local TV stations. In the future, as processor technology advances even further, we could all run detailed personal weather forecasts on our PCs. Magro says desktop computers could be used by individuals to see models for their immediate area, or to forecast weather for vacations six months into the future, for example, based on the conditions they are experiencing and have entered into the model.

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