High-performance computing offers competitive edge

HPC revenues expected to reach US$14.3b by 2010

As more manufacturing heads offshore, concern about U.S. companies' ability to maintain their competitive edge seems to be growing in Congress, which held hearings this week on the topic. At the same time, legislation has been introduced to increase research funding, some of which would benefit areas such as high-performance computing (HPC).

But Mark Crawford, vice president of engineering at Simpson Strong-Tie, doesn't need to be convinced of the value of HPC.

Simpson Strong-Tie makes metal connectors used in construction, and in many ways is the polar opposite of the Web 2.0 companies springing up near its headquarters. But this manufacturer may be one of the more high-tech companies around.

For most of its 50 years, Simpson Strong-Tie built its metal connectors by making physical prototypes to test. Last year, however, it began using HPC to do some of its design work and is now testing product variations in a virtual environment. It still does physical testing, though not as much, and has cut product development time in half: A new product that once might have taken six months to develop now takes just three, said Crawford.

The HPC system "is one of the key aspects to maintaining our competitive advantage," said Crawford, noting that Simpson Strong-Tie can more quickly investigate complex designs and see how connectors fair in various conditions such as during a high wind.

More companies may be acting in a similar fashion. HPC is a fast-growing technology, with revenues growing about 9 percent annually worldwide. IDC expects HPC revenues to reach US$14.3 billion by 2010.

Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC, said much of the growth in the market is at the midrange and low end, with new buyers taking note. "Technical servers have become so inexpensive that you can buy a very powerful system for a small sum," said Joseph.

Moreover, HPC hardware is getting easier to use, and can help companies save money and time by alleviating the need for real tests and physical prototypes, he said. New areas of growth for HPC include basic engineering of parts, as well as large-scale online games and animation.

Crawford has been using desktop systems for some of the engineering work on Simpson Strong-Tie connectors, but computations sometimes took a week and weren't always completed. That led the company to try out an HPC system from Linux Networx. The system uses 14 Opteron processors to run Abaqus' engineering software.

The connectors made by Simpson Strong-Tie are of light-gauge steel and are used to join wood, as well as wood to concrete and masonry. Complex engineering is needed because "the strength of these joints is what essentially holds a building together," especially during a hurricane or earthquake, said Crawford. The integrity and safety of a building "is largely dependent on the little small connectors that they put in there to hold it together."

Creating realistic simulations can be computer intensive and time-consuming. But with HPC's ability to distribute jobs to individual nodes complex jobs can now be run overnight, said Frank Ding, research and design engineer at Simpson Strong-Tie.

Today, the company can see how its connectors will perform on virtual building substructures. But the company's "grand goal" is to simulate an entire house, something that will take more research and probably even more computing power, said Ding.

Another manufacturing firm that has turned to higher-performance systems is Phoenix-based Ping Inc. It makes golf clubs and found that using a Cray XD1 system -- it was installed in 2005 -- substantially reduced development time. Jobs that use to take a day are now done in minutes.

"HPC is working great for us; we can get our answers faster and we can increase the resolution of the simulations to get more accurate results at the same time," said Eric Morales, a staff engineer at Ping. "The computer and software that we purchased has already paid for itself."

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