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IDC: HPC gives Asian firms competitive edge

update The region's businesses are entering an era where they cannot afford not to look at high-performance computing to compete effectively, says analyst.

update SINGAPORE--Asian companies increasingly need to look at adopting high-performance computing (HPC) to gain competitive advantage over their peers, according to research analyst IDC.

Within the region, HPC traditionally has been adopted by government and research laboratories in the areas including weather forecasting, oil and gas exploration, and optimization, Earl Joseph, IDC's program vice president for high-performance computing, told ZDNet Asia in an interview Tuesday. However, it is now increasingly used commercially for industries such as the financial services.

"What we're seeing is--in a lot of the segments like manufacturing, finance and even in the academic world--if you don't have HPC, you can't be competitive," Joseph said at an HPC event held in the island-state. "It's just something [these businesses] have to have."

The growing trend of simulations in the marketplace is fueling the growth of HPC, and vice versa, according to Joseph. HPC allows businesses to perform simulations in the product design or enhancement process, cutting down significantly the time to market as well as the need for extensive physical tests, he pointed out, adding that the increase in computational power also enables more areas for simulation.

S'pore animation firm's foray into HPC

Sparky Animation, a Singapore-based digital animation company, tested high-performance computing (HPC) waters earlier this year using Microsoft's Windows Compute Cluster Server.
Wong Kok Cheong, founder of Sparky Animation, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview Tuesday that the company ran tests on a small portion of the actual production, and the experience was "good".
Compared to enterprise scheduling systems, Microsoft's offering was more basic but "good enough" for Sparky Animation, and more attractive in terms of cost, said Wong. The company purchased licenses for 40 seats over three years, which includes free upgrades.
He said the company will be writing some additional scripts and plug-ins over the next few weeks, to tune the system for digital animation and rendering use.
Sparky Animation, which tested the software by clustering five of its older machines, plans to deploy it on newer Dell blade servers running quad-core Xeons for an upcoming production called The Grimpley Brothers.

HPC use in the region has been growing steadily in Asia in recent years, noted Joseph. Last year, the region's HPC systems growth was significantly faster than worldwide figures. Growth in the Asia-Pacific server cluster segment also exceeded the global growth rate in 2007, and the region is expected to buy more clusters going forward, he added.

Organizations, particularly smaller ones in Asia, are not bogged by legacy systems and therefore may find it easier to jump on the HPC bandwagon, said Joseph. Businesses in Asia are also very practical when it comes to buying more technical machines. "Smaller companies in Asia tend to buy machines that can help them directly--they don't buy them for glamor or other reasons; they buy them because they know exactly what they want them for," he explained.

Machines in the region, therefore, are smaller compared to other parts of the world, he added. HPC growth in Asia, and globally, will likely fall into the mid-tier segment or what IDC terms as departmental, where machines cost between US$50,000 and US$250,000. Departmental servers contribute US$3.4 billion to the overall HPC server market, estimated by IDC to be worth US$10 billion.

Microsoft aims high with HPC
The use of HPC becoming a norm in the corporate world will have as much an impact as the computer going mainstream, according to a Microsoft executive.

"The transformation of clusters into everyday business applications will be as transformative as going from the mainframe to the [personal] computer in the home," Bill Hilf, general manager of Windows Server marketing and strategy, said Tuesday in an interview with ZDNet Asia.

Beyond traditional uses, HPC has the ability to offer businesses a competitive edge by accessing information in an instant, said Hilf. For instance, the ability for call centers to retrieve very quickly computation data such as the number of customers from a particular locale reporting a similar problem, would be a competitive advantage. "Eventually, we'll be part of every business," he added.

Deepak Setty, Microsoft's Asia-Pacific regional manager for high-performance computing, noted that Asia held great potential for HPC. One particular industry is digital content creation, where the region is becoming a development bed.

The software giant officially released its Windows HPC Server 2008 Monday in the United States. HPC Server 2008 is the successor to the Windows Compute Cluster Server, which was first introduced in 2006.

By removing "a lot of technical plumbing work", the new platform will provide a "springboard" for developers to focus on creating more sophisticated applications, noted Hilf.