November 2006 A
High Productivity Computing Systems and the Path Towards Usable Petascale Computing
Suzy Tichenor, Council on Competitiveness
Albert Reuther, MIT Lincoln Laboratory


High performance computing (HPC), also known as supercomputing, makes enormous contributions not only to science and national security, but also to business innovation and competitiveness—yet senior executives often view HPC as a cost, rather than a value investment. This is largely due to the difficulty businesses and other organizations have had in determining the return on investment (ROI)1 of HPC systems.

Traditionally, HPC systems have been valued according to how fully they are utilized (i.e., the aggregate percentage of time that each of the processors of the HPC system is busy); but this valuation method treats all problems equally and does not give adequate weight to the problems that are most important to the organization. With no ability to properly assess problems having the greatest potential for driving innovation and competitive advantage, organizations risk purchasing inadequate HPC systems or, in some cases, foregoing purchases altogether because they cannot be satisfactorily justified.

This stifles innovation within individual organizations and, in the aggregate, prevents the U.S. business sector from being as globally competitive as it could and should be. The groundbreaking July 2004 "Council on Competitiveness Study of U.S. Industrial HPC Users," 2 sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and conducted by market research firm IDC, found that 97 percent of the U.S. businesses surveyed could not exist, or could not compete effectively, without the use of HPC. Recent Council on Competitiveness studies reaffirmed that HPC typically is indispensable for companies that exploit it 3.

It is increasingly true that to out-compete, companies need to out-compute. Without a more pragmatic method for determining the ROI of HPC hardware systems, however, U.S. companies already using HPC may lose ground in the global competitiveness pack. Equally important, companies that have never used HPC may continue to miss out on its benefits for driving innovation and competitiveness.

To help address this issue, we present an alternative to relying on system utilization as a measure of system valuation, namely, capturing the ROI by starting with a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) calculation. This calculation is already in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where it has proven effective in other contexts.

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Reference this article
Tichenor, S., Reuther, A. "Making the Business Case for High Performance Computing: A Benefit-Cost Analysis Methodology," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 2, Number 4A, November 2006 A. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2006/11/making-the-business-case-for-high-performance-computing-a-benefit-cost-analysis-methodology/

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