Supporting the Intellectual Life

I had recently written a post here, about how frustrated I am with the publish or perish cycle and how the focus on ROI by Granting organizations was shifting pure science from research to development.

The more it rattles in the back of my brain, the more it eats at me. It is not that development is a bad thing. Development has improved YouTube, so that more and more users can watch without having it crash. Development adds new features to AmieStreet, so that now I can send 10$ gifts to my friends ( I have a couple extra still– comment here if you are interested….). I am sure that development played a role in making the brand new Calphalon pots and pans I got for Christmas as amazing as they are. But without research, we soon stagnate and falter.

So how do we support researchers who want to do cool things, without creating another beaurocracy that slows them down? Since the Corporate mindset has invaded governments and the social ethos everywhere..( and with the recent move to block all but government sponsored video sites, I am now convinced this is even true in communist China), the current focus on ROI will prevent major funding agencies and large groups of people from supporting the sort of pure research that will take us to the next level.

At first, I thought- why not have a fund that is “Feed the Research”, instead of “Feed the Children“? People will donate 3.50$/month without thinking too much about it. Set it up in paypal and get the word out, you could actually fund something interesting. But then you need an oversight board- who decides what gets funded and based on what criteria? Oiy– back to large group mindset again. We already decided this was trouble. What about the model used by DonorsChoose, to fund small projects and the needs of teachers? Here the Teachers post what they need, donors get to choose who they want to fund and when all the money for a project is raised- voila! But these are small scale projects, and it is a whole lot easier to raise 500$ for classroom materials, than 500,000 for some seemingly whacky research project. Then there is Sellaband– a site where bands who want to record post music and fans who want them to record. Fans who like them invest in the band, until the band has raised enough( 50,000) to get a recording session. But here the fans are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts- they get profit sharing later– which take us back to the ROI issue.

I know there has to be a way to make this work, a way to fund pure research that will revolutionize our world over and over again. I am a child of the 60s and 70s SciFi, dang it.. I grew up on the Jetsons and I want my jetpacks and rocket cars 😉 How would you model this so that good research could thrive without the tentacles of profit and ROI strangling it?

New Home

I am a long time blogger- I have had a blog on Livejournal for some time now, but in the last few months I have found myself more and more bumping up against the limits of what I could and could not do in my blog. This is a web 2.0 world, and I live it fully. I have a PalmOS Treo 700 that sends me messages for my schedule, from my kids, and from the world. I Twitter, Flickr, Meebo, Joost, Mozes, Hulu and Digg. I hang out on Facebook, LinkedIn, AmieStreet, Vox and YouTube. I love digital music and video and it is inherently entwined in who I am and what I do. I also get up and push away from my computer and interact directly with Mother Earth in a hands on fashion. I love to garden- both flower and veggie and in the summer my life is full of all things growing, and there is dirt under my nails. I love to dance- almost all forms but hardly ever have the time I want for it. I chase/shuffle/manage two teenage girls and have a partial live in fiance with two step sons. I am a gamer and love RPGs, and try to have massive gaming sessions a few times a year- at least.

I wanted my blog to reflect the interaction of pieces and parts of me, but the technical limits of LiveJournal were preventing me from doing that. So, with much thought and pondering and some little pain, I have decided to re-locate here and send a feed back there- at least for now. I also write other blogs, and if this works out and I can find an audience here, I may shift some of them here as well. So speak up, speak out and let me know you are here- you can also email or text message me directly- I take feedback in all forms.

Blue collar computing: Overcoming high performance computing barriers

The two major barriers for companies wanting to use High Performance Computing (HPC) to solve complex problems are the cost of implementation and the difficulty of installing, maintaining, programming and using HPC systems.
While there is no question that multiprocessor parallel programming is very difficult (and getting more difficult with each leap forward made by hardware), it no longer needs to remain a barrier for companies who want to make use of these technologies.
No, we are not publishing “The Idiot’s Guide to HPC”, nor have I learned of any top secret government programs that successfully implement knowledge transfer. There are, however, resources available for manufacturers with challenging questions or simulations which could improve their processes. We will look at one approach in this article, with others to follow in future blog entries.
The Ohio Supercomputer Center is located in Columbus, OH and provides the networking backbone for all Ohio Public schools and supercomputing facilities for Ohio Higher Education. They are a state funded organization which also includes researchers and programmers. So what does the Ohio State public school computer infrastructure have to do with your manufacturing plant? The OSC has also built and is actively growing a program called “Blue Collar Computing.” This program allows industry to work with the OSC resources and utilizes their hardware and software for a fee. Since they are a state funded organization, businesses within Ohio get a discounted price, but the service is open and available to all.
There are a variety of services available to companies which can help give a business the leg up and over the barriers of cost and difficulty. Since they are providing services on a computing as utility basis, they are especially well suited for companies that have one time or infrequent problems they need to solve. A company can either bring in code they have purchased or written themselves and buy CPU cycles on the OSC hardware, or experts at the OSC can work with businesses on a project basis to develop new software which will then run on the OSC hardware. This solves some of the problems of learning curve, but even the COTS applications can be confusing and overwhelming to new users. With an understanding of this problem, the HPC community at large is moving toward building web portals, or easy to use desktop clients designed for a much more user friendly interface. OSC is no exception to this and are working with local industry consortia to find the general case problems that can be distilled into easy to use web based applications that use the power of Supercomputing on the backend to speed up processing. One example of this is a weld-simulation tool which is currently in production; they are also in the process of developing a material mix calculation tool for the polymer industry and a plant floor optimization simulation tool.
Not sure if parallel computing, clusters or HPC even makes sense for your business? The experts at OSC can work with you to analyze your problems, your code and even do test development and performance analysis before you make the commitment to investment. They have actively worked with industry in this way to bring their expert knowledge to the IT staff of businesses, leap frogging the decision making process for the businesses.
OSC is not the only state owned supercomputing center to work with industry, there are centers in other states currently engaged with industry. We will highlight the successes of these other centers in future blog entries, along with the recent partnership of national supercomputing centers with industry, for example through the DOE’s INCITE program.
Have a hard problem that you think would make a great application? Have concerns or excitement about government and industry partnerships? Questions about HPC? Comment and let us know what you think.

Nancy Glenn is a manufacturing solution design analyst and a contributor to InTech magazine.

Life in HPC’s Fast Lane

By Nancy Glenn

How do you end up in Reno, Nev., when a chunk of the rest of the Manufacturing IT world is heading for Chicago?

I am sitting here in a lobby of the SC07 conference. That is SC, as in Super Computer, not South Carolina. Not the normal place to find a plant floor IT gal. Surrounded by computers with hundreds of CPUs, capable of many Teraflops of calculations, and IT folks who debate parallel processing algorithms between bites of conference pastry, you might wonder if I got lost on the way to the Rockwell Automation Fair. But the truth is, the use of High Performance Computing (HPC) has been growing in industry in the last few years. Not only is it used to speed up highly complex simulations, or to make Shrek render faster, it is also used by some businesses for Supply Chain Calculations. With such uses wedging the plant floor from both sides, it was inevitable it would leak down to the plant floor eventually. It has become so pervasive in industry that this year the SC committee added an entire track of talks and case study presentations on HPC in industry. From Boeing to Proctor & Gamble, folks in a range of industries are here talking about what does and doesn’t work.

So what is HPC, and how might it apply to your company? The answer is not as easy or clear as we might like. We will begin with some definitions and background, but that will be followed with a series of posts for those interested in following the HPC technology and learning more what other people are doing. We will try to look critically at what technology is available, what works and what doesn’t. What is still in development and what is production ready. Barriers for HPC, and models for overcoming those. And of course, how to meet ROI. Like anything else, this is a tool good for some problems, but not for others. Have a burning question or a topic you want to see tackled? Comment below, and we will either answer there (if it is brief) or roll it into a future blog post. We will also try to point out along the way where HPC just does not make sense. This is not about the cool, but about becoming leaner, faster, and more competitive. As a matter of fact, The U.S. Council on Competiveness has identified HPC as a critical factor in improving the flexibility and competiveness of businesses.

HPC is defined as any compute process that uses multiple processors in parallel. This could be a single muti-core machine, a cluster of single core machines, or huge multi CPU (potentially with muti core processors) computers that can compute hundreds of Teraflops. Problems that make sense to tackle in this way are ones that can be broken into small pieces, which are not interdependent and can be run in parallel, with the results collected and compiled in a final step. This could be many things from large data set sorting to digital image rendering. Many simulations are a good target for this sort of speed gain, as well as tasks as simple as histograming very large, complex data sets.

Typically, we think of HPC as requiring supercomputers—huge massive computers at the top of the class in size and speed. Computers like that are out of the price range of 99.999% of us, and silly even to consider. However, with recent technology advances, multi-processor computers can be purchased for under $2, 000. This puts them in almost anyone’s price range; now the biggest challenge is learning to program in ways that take advantage of the extra compute power. With tons of compute power at your fingertips, it becomes tempting to try to solve every problem by just throwing more compute power at it, but even at faster speeds, this consumes cycles of time—a precious commodity on the plant floor. We will try to look at how you ask the really good useful questions, and how you weed out the ones that will just waste time.

What’s hype and what’s not? Do the vendors really supply what they promise? These are all questions we will tackle as this blog moves forward. Let’s make it a community discussion: Be sure to comment, question, or tell us when you think we have missed the mark. If you are currently using HPC in any way, we would love to hear from you too. Be sure to comment or e-mail and let us know.

To get the ball rolling, you can contact me at mfghpc@gmail.com or you can just respond to this posting.

Nancy Glenn is a manufacturing solution design analyst and a contributor to InTech magazine.