Breaking business models | National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois

Breaking business models

01.10.12 -

by Barbara Jewett

Almost as soon as NCSA opened, the center began collaborating with companies. One of the first was Eli Lilly. The firm used NCSA supercomputers to investigate leukotrienes, which cause the lungs to stiffen and become irritated. Investigators hoped to find a "receptor antagonist" that could block the leukotriene receptors without causing this reaction. By 1992, NCSA was helping Eli Lilly visualize the shapes of leukotriene molecules, moving from trial-and-error to rational drug design.

That's just one example of why a third of the FORTUNE 50 has worked with NCSA.

"It's more than burning cycles on our supercomputers, or leveraging NCSA's innovative technologies," says Merle Giles, director of the NCSA Private Sector Program (PSP). What has made the NCSA Private Sector Program so successful for the past quarter-century, he explains, is that the program brings business and industry together with NCSA's skilled staff and the best research minds at the University of Illinois.

That's not to say the hardware isn't important. PSP is excited to offer partners a new compute cluster, iForge, which is dedicated to their use. It provides an end-to-end computing environment for PSP partners with an ability to handle pre-and post- data processing as well as simulations. It is especially well-suited, notes Giles, for fluid dynamics and solid materials simulations.

In addition to Eli Lilly, through the years NCSA has also worked with Boeing, Caterpillar, John Deere, Kodak, GE, Motorola, P&G, Rolls-Royce, Sears Roebuck and Co. and many more multi-national companies.

Current partners include: ADM, Boeing, BP, Caterpillar, John Deere, Dell, GE, IllinoisRocstar, Microsoft, Nimbis Services, Nokia Siemens Networks, Procter & Gamble, Rolls-Royce, and John Zink.

Research focus

While NCSA's PSP team aids companies with their research, the team also does some of their own. Giles and his staff try to anticipate what partners will need to stay competitive so they can offer additional services or respond nimbly to requests. Currently the PSP team is excited to be involved in two research projects that will aid their industrial partners.

With a $200,000 EArly Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award from the National Science Foundation, Giles and his team are documenting the use of science by the industrial computational community. They expect to aid understanding of the interplay between federally supported university-based research and industrial research and development, highlighting how interdependent academic and industrial science are. The project will also relate high-performance computing (HPC) efforts within large U.S. companies to university-based research, identify use cases that drive industry demand for high-quality research, and identify practices that could potentially foster alliances in advanced software development, including petascale computing. In addition, they hope to link to activities at a number of federal agencies and departments.

Industry demand for simulation-based engineering and science has increased due to a variety of factors, explains Giles. Companies face economic pressure to decrease time-to-market. They also need to utilize multi-disciplinary physics to address product complexity and safety, and have a general inability to conduct physical prototyping due to miniaturization, complex materials manipulation, or safety. In addition, companies want to take advantage of modern production methods and energy innovation and conservation.

The EAGER project is currently conducting a survey to obtain better insight into the science barriers to, and benefits from, HPC.

"Most HPC surveys focus on utilization of hardware, which is often expressed in terms of scale, such as the numbers of processor cores used simultaneously in a simulation," says Giles. "We have observed that there are science and engineering limitations to the use of software, as sophisticated as such software often is, and that these limitations are not well understood, and certainly not well documented."

NCSA's PSP is also a key service provider for the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium, a U.S. public-private partnership tasked to demonstrate advancements in digital engineering and manufacturing through a $5 million Midwest pilot project.

"This is a public-private partnership," says Giles. "Private companies are putting up some of that money and it has the attention and involvement of a U.S. agency not previously involved with high-performance computing. That's exciting for the HPC community, especially those of us who work with the private sector."

Current shareholders in the consortium include Deere & Co., General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration.

Working with the Ohio Supercomputer Center, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, and the Council on Competitiveness, the project will, among other things, develop user-friendly web portals to lower technical barriers to the utilization of sophisticated software applications. This is part of the project's effort to effort to provide education, training, and access to supercomputing resources so that small and medium sized manufacturing enterprises in the United States can develop computer modeling and simulation skills. NCSA will provide trainers and domain experts to train staff at select companies in HPC, modeling, and simulation.

Through the project, collaborators look forward to accelerating innovation through the use of advanced technology. The goal is greater productivity and profits for all players through an increase of manufacturing jobs remaining in and coming back to the U.S., and increases in United States exports.

The next 25 years

When it comes to PSP, Giles continually looks forward. Data-intensive computing, data-driven computing, and computational data analytics, he says, are exciting fields that benefit from the sort of large-system expertise found among the Illinois' campus faculty and the NCSA staff. PSP is currently working with several data projects and are in discussions on additional ones.

Companies are drowning in data, he notes, and "managing that data is imperative so that companies can make intelligent decisions based on accurate information."

"NCSA and PSP have significantly impacted how many major corporations conduct their business," says Giles. "We've broken the standard business model for many of our partners."

And as NCSA and PSP aid companies in being competitive in an ever-changing global business climate, he's looking forward to doing it again and again.