High-Performance Profits - InformationWeek

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1/6/2006
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Darrell Dunn
Darrell Dunn
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High-Performance Profits

More businesses are opting for clustered technology that gives them supercomputer speeds at PC prices

High-performance computing increasingly is moving into mainstream business applications as companies in various industries discover that x86 clusters--technology most companies know how to manage--offer a steady increase in performance at low prices.

A recent move in this area has Clemson University bridging the gap between traditional academic research-oriented high-performance computing and business applications. The school is installing a supercomputer that has as part of the first phase a cluster of 1,000 Sun Microsystems servers using dual-core Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. The installation will serve as the heart of the university's Computational Center for Mobility, housed at its International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville, S.C.

"This isn't an academic program. This is a standalone computational center dedicated to solving realistic and complex problems ... in a robust and economical way," says Jim Leylek, professor of mechanical engineering at Clemson. "This is part of a huge initiative intended to shift the automotive center of gravity to South Carolina by creating a global powerhouse center dedicated to solving automotive problems."

The project, with a price tag of $16 million on its first phase, is being paid for through funds from the state and local governments as well as auto and transportation companies interested in the work, such as BMW and Michelin North America Inc. But it's really improvements in computing technology that have made it possible, including dual-core-enabled servers that provide about 1.7 times the computational power per CPU of conventional systems and InfiniBand interconnect capabilities that provide 10-Gbps bandwidth, Leylek says.

"What used to take 20 days of around-the-clock crunching time with the same number of CPUs we can now do overnight," he says. "This appeals to automotive companies that would love to have a high-powered physics-based simulation predication methodology in a design setting."

Get the Noise Out

BMW, for one, is using the Clemson cluster to run acoustic simulations to reduce new-car development time. Car buyers, BMW believes, make subconscious judgments about cars based on the frequency bands of sounds heard while driving, even if those sounds aren't readily apparent. BMW formerly built prototype vehicles configured with a hundred or more microphones. After test drives, it would analyze sounds the microphones picked up and build a second, less-noisy prototype. It would be similarly analyzed to determine if sufficient improvements had been made to move the vehicle to production.

Repeated rounds of prototypes were expensive and time consuming. BMW spent as much as 15 years on a typical development cycle. But by using acoustic-prediction modeling software developed by Clemson, BMW now completes simulations without having to build prototypes and has cut new-model development time by seven to eight years.

Merlin's Edge

Affordable high-performance computing has helped establish Merlin Securities LLC, a 2-year-old brokerage that provides hedge-fund managers with information on trading activities, says Mike Mettke, senior database administrator at the company. "If you look at a traditional [Unix] cluster, you had a cost per CPU of around $10,000," Mettke says. "The Dell cluster we deployed had a price point of around $2,000 per CPU."

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