November 2006 A
High Productivity Computing Systems and the Path Towards Usable Petascale Computing
Suzy Tichenor, Council on Competitiveness


Recent Council on Competitiveness1 studies have found that nearly all businesses that exploit high performance computing (HPC) consider it indispensable for rapid innovation, competitive advantage and corporate survival. But Council on Competitiveness research has also identified barriers to the broader use of HPC in the business sector. The companion article on high performance computing (HPC) in this issue of CTWatch Quarterly2 examined one of these barriers—the difficulty of determining the return-on-investment for HPC hardware systems (also known as supercomputers)—and proposed a methodology for addressing this issue. Another important barrier preventing greater HPC use is the scarcity of application software capable of fully exploiting current and planned HPC hardware systems.

U.S. businesses rely on a diverse range of commercially available software from independent software vendors (ISVs). At the same time, experienced HPC business users want to exploit the problem-solving power of contemporary HPC hardware systems with hundreds, thousands or (soon) tens of thousands of processors to boost innovation and competitive advantage. Yet few ISV applications today can exploit ("scale to") even 100 processors, and many of the most-popular applications scale to only a few processors in practice.

Market forces and technical challenges in recent years have caused the ISVs to pull away from creating new and innovative HPC applications, and no other source has arisen to satisfy this market need. For business reasons, ISVs focus primarily on the desktop computing markets, which are much larger and therefore promise a better return on R&D investments. ISVs can sometimes afford to make modest enhancements to their application software so that it can run faster on HPC systems, but substantially revising existing applications or creating new ones does not pay off. As a result, the software that is available for HPC systems is often outdated and incapable of scaling to the level needed to meet industry's needs for boosting problem-solving performance. In some cases, the applications that companies want simply do not exist.

This need for production-quality application software and middleware has become a soft spot in the U.S. competitiveness armor; a pacing item in the private sector’s ability to harness the full potential of HPC. Without the necessary application software, American companies are losing their ability to aggressively use HPC to solve their most challenging problems and risk ceding leadership in the global marketplace.

To better understand why U.S businesses are having difficulty obtaining the high-performance, production-quality application software they need, the Council on Competitiveness convened an HPC Users Conference, followed by a day-long software workshop held in collaboration with the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC). Participants3 discussed the effectiveness of current business models for HPC application software, as well as technical and resource barriers preventing the development of more effective software. They produced a roadmap of actions ISVs, universities and government research establishments could follow, individually and collectively, to address these barriers and ensure that our country has the application software needed to solve our most important competitive problems. The major discussion themes and recommendations are highlighted in the following sections.

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Reference this article
Tichenor, S. "Application Software for High Performance Computers: A Soft Spot for U.S. Business Competitiveness ," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 4A, November 2006 A. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2006/11/application-software-for-high-performance-computers-a-soft-spot-for-us-business-competitiveness/

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