Incubator builds in HPC to give new businesses a head start

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Early last month an article got caught in my Google nets from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — I know, not exactly a tier 1 source for HPC news. But this article caught my eye.

The core idea is that the University of Missouri-St. Louis has opened a business incubator built around HPC services to provide a competitive edge for its tenants.

At the heart of IT Enterprises is a high-performance computing center, or HPC, an efficient and easily expandable network of servers capable of running a continual series of complex analytical jobs. It will be hired out to the incubator’s tenants, UMSL researchers and the community at large.

The center was developed at a cost of $10M, about half from the university and half from private donations. The HPC center includes resources as well as expert consultants, a group of eight faculty members from UMSL with computational expertise, that are available for a fee.

There is a business model in mind here

Revenue from their services, the use of the HPC, plus tenants’ rent should make the incubator self-sustaining, [Nasser Arshadi, UMSL’s vice provost for research] said. His goal is to have IT Enterprises 40 percent leased within a year.

Even if everything doesn’t go as planned, UMSL Chancellor Thomas George believes the enterprise is a good move that matches the university’s raison d’être

George expects UMSL will recoup its investment from the incubator’s operations. Regardless, he said, IT Enterprises is an important step in the land-grant university’s mission of contributing to local economic development.

The facility is hosted in a building once inhabited by a genomics firm, and the university hopes to find some synergy with the two biotech incubators in the region by providing the infrastructure to support the intensive computing needs of companies that mine biological data.

I had a great email exchange with Kelly Crone-Willis (hi, Kelly!), the director of IT Architecture at the incubator, and Nasser Arshadi.

On the origin of the idea of building an incubator around HPC

[Arshadi] We came up with the idea as a natural evolution of incubator business where common resources offered could be expanded to include computation capacity as well as on-site expertise. We are also aware of the inefficiencies involving setting up individual data centers by startup companies. A centralized common-accessed HPC for startups allows for more sophisticated, flexible capacity at better prices. Currently, the utilization rate for data centers across the country is about 15%, which tells me there are too many individual data centers. Our model addresses the problem.

On the infrastructure being deployed to support HPC

[Crone-Willis] Our initial infrastructure purchase will be a 64 node (256 core) AMD cluster, 2 servers for virtual hosting, iSCSI SAN, backup server, and core GigE network. With this setup we can provide internal and external customers HPC cycles, server hosting, and cohosting rack space. However, we have sized our data center to expand 5x our current rack space of 8 42U racks. The cooling and electrical is in place, so we can add compute nodes, add storage, or add hosting space as needed. We are using in-row cooling from APC and the taps for connecting the chiller lines are already in place and ready to go.

On charging for compute

[Crone-Willis] It is a little early to speak about chargeback as we are still working out the arrangements….The goal of the incubator environment is to help startup companies with their infrastructure needs so that they don’t have to build a data center. Our internal tenants would therefore get preferred pricing or some sort of computing package along with their lease. Anyone else with a relationship to this center or the campus would also be eligible for preferred pricing.

Cone-Willis goes on to make the point that the mindset of the incubator team is to grow “partnerships,” not customers, so pricing and service schemes may well vary according to each party’s needs and what they can bring to the table to help grow the environment for everyone. That sounds like an outstanding way to do business.