Supercomputing now on demand from IBM

Energy and life sciences companies are just some of those expected to take advantage of IBM Corp.’s new supercomputing on-demand initiative, which allows users to avoid the purchase and maintenance costs of large servers in favour of short-term agreements with IBM to process specific jobs.

Thursday’s announcement is part of IBM’s overall On-Demand strategy, unveiled last October. The Armonk, N.Y., company is trying to change the way businesses manage computing resources by allowing them to tap into either a network of Unix servers running IBM’s Power4 processors or a Linux cluster of rack servers based on Intel Corp.’s Xeon processors.

Companies with cyclical design cycles, such as movie studios, often purchase servers and supercomputers so they can handle their requirements during busy periods, said Dave Jursik, vice-president of Linux clusters at IBM. During lulls in production, that processing power sits unused, but the machines still need to be maintained.

The e-Business on Demand service will allow companies to use the amount of supercomputing power needed for a specific project, without having to build and maintain that server infrastructure, Jursik said. “(It) will allow customers to be more flexible in response to their clients, either internally or externally,” he said.

IBM has already signed up PGS Data Processing, a division of Petroleum Geo-Services ASA, for its service. Based in London, PGS Data Processing takes raw seismic data and develops sophisticated maps for energy companies seeking new sources of oil or gas, said Chris Usher, president of PGS Data Processing.

The on-demand service allows PGS to avoid making large purchases from hardware suppliers based on short-term needs and to accept data processing jobs from its customers without having to worry about purchasing additional processing capacity, he said.

“Right now, if you have an urgent requirement, or have to expand your business, you have to make a long-term requirement for capacity, which needs to be linked to an increase in your market to show a return. Downturns stick you with fixed capacity and fixed costs,” he said. IT departments are under pressure to show a return on their technology investments, which is hard to do when expensive supercomputers sit unused, he said.

PGS started processing a job over the Linux cluster in December, running it remotely from its London headquarters, Usher said. While the company’s proprietary software runs on both Unix and Linux, it chose the Linux-Intel cluster because PGS is more familiar with the reliability of that configuration, he said.

Interested customers sign a contract with IBM that specifies the length of the project, and the amount of IBM’s resources needed to process the job. IBM would not provide specific pricing information, which differs for each customer depending on the amount of time required to finish a project, and the amount of service required, among other things, Jursik said.

As the service evolves, IBM hopes to move it toward a true utility-based computing service, where companies access computing resources like flipping a light switch, Jursik said. PGS would look toward outsourcing most, if not all, of its computing jobs to IBM if this experience goes well, Usher said.

The initial clusters are located at IBM’s facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but IBM expects to roll this technology out to its data centres around the world as it gains experience delivering the service, Jursik said.