Sun exec shines light on pockets of business HPC

TORONTO — Many CIOs may be surprised to find that high performance computing (HPC) plays a role in their business, whether it’s in house or through a third-party, a Sun Microsystems Inc. executive told Canadian IT professionals on Tuesday.


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HPC technology is more pervasive than people know and holds real benefit to businesses, in particular for performing tasks like predictive analytics, past purchase analytics and simulations, said John Fowler, executive vice-president of the systems group with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems at an IT World Canada Frankly Speaking Breakfast in Toronto.


The discussion, which centred on HPC’s shift to mainstream from its traditional research sphere, served to help CIOs identify current uses of the technology and potential opportunities for its use in the business.

A business probably already houses “pockets” of HPC technology scattered across the organization, which may have over time been individually purchased, deployed and operating, in what Fowler called “a half-baked fashion.” Companies would benefit in co-locating the separate pieces using technology that exists to create a grid that all departments can use to perform respective tasks.

One Toronto-based financial processing company uses HPC to enable the performance of real-time analytics on millions of transactions processed nightly.

Symcor’s chief technology officer John Wall, who spoke at the event, said his firm’s use of HPC “grew holistically” from the need to solve a business problem around privacy and fraud.

Although Wall sees real-time analytics as a “fact of life” for handling fraud detection and other tasks, some problems are better suited to HPC than others. It’s a learning curve for any organization trying to figure out which problems are more amenable to being broken down across a grid’s compute nodes, he said.

Nonetheless, HPC’s growth beyond the research world has been fuelled, in part, by the technology’s rapid evolution, said Fowler, which has made the technology increasingly affordable and therefore the applications more accessible. He added, “economics is a huge trigger right now.” Actually, compared to business applications (ERP, CRM, etc.) and Internet infrastructure, HPC is the fastest-growing part of an organization’s infrastructure, he said.

Customers considering HPC adoption have generally identified a specific problem that needs resolving, said Fowler, at which point Sun will suggest the optimum solution and system implementation. Sun uses benchmark centres to test proposed scenarios using customer data to assess whether the approach will fit, explained Fowler. A power consumption budget is often nowadays part of the dialogue, he added.

Also contributing to the fray is the fact that IT admins lack familiarity with HPC technology given the diverse system and storage options, said Wall. But once deployed and successful, he found it was necessary to manage the expectations of those in the company who perceived the grid to be “the magic button.” He suggested setting expectations around the types of problems that can be solved with HPC and assessing whether they are manageable on the existing infrastructure.

But the prevalence of HPC in the enterprise aside, Fowler noted the pervasiveness, albeit less obvious, of the technology in the mobile market. “Virtually every product in this room is created by HPC,” he observed. In particular, he said, mobile technologies like Google Maps and GPS rely on real-time analysis of data across millions of users.

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