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State supercomputing has business licking lips

Governments investing in ever more powerful supercomputers must find ways to transfer the associated technology advances to the private sector to improve business competitiveness.

That was the message of a panel discussion on global leadership at the Supercomputing Conference 2004 in the US, where IT executives from General Motors and PDI/DreamWorks explained how supercomputers had made them more competitive.

Moderator David Shaw, chairman of DE Shaw group, an investment and technology development firm, said that to outcompete rivals around the globe, businesses needed more powerful hardware such as supercomputers. But to do that affordably, they need to exploit government investments in supercomputers used for research, military, meteorological and other applications.

Sharan Kalwani, manager of high-performance computing infrastructure at GM, said the business benefits of supercomputing were very real. He explained that designing new vehicles and tooling up factories to build them was an incredibly expensive process that took up to 60 months to complete back in the early 1990s. But today's supercomputers could compress and overlap multiple schedules for design, tooling, research, safety testing and manufacturing so that the process took only about 18 months from concept to final vehicle.

"It required a lot of investment," said Kalwani, adding that upper management was slow to accept it initially, but was convinced as the benefits, not least in better-quality cars and trucks, became obvious. "Management is now seeing the results, and they're fully behind us." he said. "The ROI is there."

Kalwani cited vehicle safety testing, where test cars are smashed to test their safety for occupants. Each test of a real vehicle takes a long time to prepare with sensors and other equipment and costs about $500,000 (£270,000), he said. Once the test is done, the vehicle is scrap, and no more testing can be done on it.

But by using supercomputers for virtual crash testing, more than 100 tests of various accident factors can be simulated and rerun 40 or more times almost instantly to ensure accurate results that exactly duplicate the results of testing on actual vehicles, according to Kalwani.

Andy Hendrickson, head of animation technology at PDI/DreamWorks, said supercomputers had revolutionised his business by allowing complex mathematical calculations to be done more quickly, helping to create more lifelike animation and making big savings in labour costs. Since animation is so labour-intensive, savings can be huge.

Todd Weiss writes for Computerworld


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