There are better ways of providing supercomputing services than running a single huge set of processors in a country remote from most major markets, NZ Supercomputer Centre technology chief Scott Houston has discovered.
With a number of large blade-server arrays now available in many countries, the business can be more a matter of setting up a link between a willing provider and a customer.
The two can be virtually anywhere in the world but it works better when the two parties are reasonably local, he says. The model adopted by Houston’s own company, InterGrid, established last year, is to provide just such a link, enhanced by offering specific software for applications that demand large computing power.
Current offerings are in biotechnology, modelling the complex structures and behaviours of giant organic molecules; in seismic processing, usually connected with oil or gas exploration; and in rendering of synthetic images for film and television — a field Houston, as former chief technical officer of Weta Digital, knows well.
As well as representing the NZSC overseas, Houston has investigated other reservoirs of computing power in Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Australia, that can be re-purposed during idle time and linked to a customer through a digital network.
InterGrid is looking at possible deals with a studio in Hong Kong to provide seismic processing for Chinese mineral exploration projects, and for an Indian company in the seismic field to provide computer-generated imagery for Bollywood movies.
On the other hand, for some projects it makes sense to ship processors physically to where they are needed. When Animalogic, maker of the penguin-themed movie Happy Feet, required 1000 processors in Sydney to finish animations on the movie, a deal was struck for Weta to provide 500 and Telecom-owned Gen-i, partner in the NZSC, to supply the other 500. After completing the movie all 1000 processors were shipped back to Wellington.
At present, the supply of processing power is in response to specific projects, but InterGrid aspires to the ideal of on-demand power. If you want ten processors to handle a sudden piece of intensive work, says Houston, “you should be able to bring them in immediately by ‘pressing the green button’.”
The most complex part of such an operation will be billing customers for the resources used, he says.
“We have software vendors willing to work with us on this and other applications,” Houston says. The power-on-demand operation is expected to reach at least beta-trial stage by the end of this year. InterGrid is hoping to open a US office soon.