From Shrek to jet engines, supercomputers prove their mettle

Each year the US Department of Energy entertains proposals for INCITE, a program aimed at advancing the state of the art in US industry. The winners get free computer time on DOE supercomputers.

Each year the US Department of Energy entertains proposals for INCITE, a program aimed at advancing the state of the art in US industry. The winners get free computer time on DOE supercomputers. Two of the winners this year, Dreamworks Animation and Pratt & Whitney, gave presentations at SC07 about what they did with that time. In both cases, the work helped transform their businesses and prove the value of supercomputing to industries of all types.

Dreamworks creates animated feature films such as Shrek and Madagascar. They already operate a cluster of computers (8,000 cores) for computer generated rendering. But even with all this horsepower, animators had to wait for 2 hours to see the final, lighted version of the scene they're working on. The ambitious proposal was to eliminate that delay.

In order to achieve real time speeds, they would need to decrease rendering times by 5 orders of magnitude. Unfortunately it would require a 2 PetaFlop machine (2 x 10^15 floating point operations per second), which doesn't exist yet. 3 orders of magnitude (and 20 TeraFlops) would get them down to "interactive" time, which they figured was good enough for the animators. The computer they used to achieve this was a Cray XT3.

After a few prototypes they settled on a client-server architecture. The client was the animation tool that artists were already used to, modified to communicate to the new system. On the server, responsibility for rendering a frame was broken up into several smaller panes, rendered on worker nodes, reconstructed on the server, and finally sent back to the client. It was a great success. "We were awarded much more time than we consumed," said Evan Smith, Principal Software Engineer at Dreamworks. The production version was used to help create their newest release, Kung Fu Panda, he said.

Turbofan engine
The other INCITE winner was Pratt & Whitney. For years they've been working on designs for a new greener type of jet engine called a "geared turbofan". They had been using high performance computers since the '90s, but hit a wall when clock speed increases fizzled out. "Performance was coming in a different way," said Peter Bradley from Pratt & Whitney, "How do we continue to build successes in a multi-core environment?" The company saw INCITE as a way to address these challenges, and picked Argonne National Laboratory as a partner. The computer they worked with was an IBM Blue Gene machine.

In order to take advantage of the newest generation of computers, P&W had to break down the existing analysis process and remake it for a multi-core world. "It's about scaling the entire process," said Bradley. It took several iterations but eventually they came up with a new process that was scalable to many more CPUs. "There are no inherent limits on the number of processors" in their new system, he claimed.

The geared turbofan engine was just launched for Mitsubishi regional jets. "Improvements we made through INCITE are now being applied to this groundbreaking project," said Bradley. The new engine has double-digit reductions in emissions and fuel consumption. In an industry where each percentage point represents millions of dollars of savings, that's a pretty significant achievement.

"One question we ask," says Bradley, is "What is it that's impossible today, that if we made it possible would add real value to the business?" Although the opportunities are great, success is not a slam dunk. It takes a lot of work in bringing it home. "The building blocks are there but putting them together is a challenge."


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