Bringing HPC to the SME

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In this special guest feature, Tom Wilkie from Scientific Computing World reports from last week’s ISC 2015 conference on moves to make it easier for SMEs to access high-performance computing, and on why it matters.

secure cloudAction is being taken on making it easier for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to get access to high-performance computing, thanks to several initiatives that were publicized during the ISC High Performance conference held in Frankfurt last week.

As discussed in Why do smaller companies shun HPC? the first of this series of reports from ISC High Performance, Jürgen Kohler, senior manager, NVH CAE & vehicle concepts at Mercedes-Benz, had used his opening conference keynote address in part to stress how important SMEs were for the prosperity of the European economy in the future. But he also pointed out that they were not taking up the tools of the future: computer simulation, and high-performance computing (HPC) in particular.

Why it matters — the end of the Mittelstand?

Kohler’s warning was particularly significant, coming as it did from a senior executive in a major Germany company. The post-war success of the German economy was founded on the Mittelstand, the network of small and medium-sized companies that are nonetheless consistently high-tech in their approach, as a result of working closely with local universities and researchers and by clustering themselves around larger manufacturers. (The area around Stuttgart, where Mercedes-Benz is headquartered, is a perfect example of this.)

As a result of their links with universities and research, Mittelstand companies tend to be focused on innovative and high-value manufactured products, and they occupy worldwide, niche-market leadership positions. Mostly family owned, theMittelstand companies place an emphasis on long-term profitability, in contrast with larger companies (including German ones) that are quoted on the stock market and that face quarterly or annual pressure to meet investor’s expectations on earnings and dividend payments.

Questions that need an answer

To rectify the deficit in uptake of HPC by SMEs, Kohler called for sector-specific ‘competence centres’ for SMEs. But before these could be established, he pointed out, ‘we have to find out what are the needs of SMEs.’

There could be half a dozen factors inhibiting the uptake of HPC and CAE among the smaller engineering companies, he suggested:

  • Were they lacking HPC expertise or, at a more basic level, was there a lack of skills in computer modelling and simulation at any level, not just with high-performance computers?
  • Was there a need therefore to provide more information to such companies on simulation techniques?
  • Was the problem simply that they did not have ready access to hardware or the appropriate software?
  • Did SMEs need support with developing their engineering rather than their computing skills?
  • Finally, was the issue financial and so was there a need to provide financial support or some form of low cost access to HPC?

It became clear in the course of ISC High Performance that efforts are being made in several European countries to make HPC resources available and to provide assistance in their use to small and medium enterprises.

The French national plan

Stéphane Requena, chief technical officer of Genci, the French national supercomputing agency, told Scientific Computing World that new money was to be made available in France to encourage the uptake of computing and HPC by French SMEs. Just before ISC High Performance, he pointed out, the French Government had announced ambitious plans to expand HPC-PME, the national scheme to support and increase the competitiveness of French SMEs by integrating HPC in their business model. At the heart of the scheme is customised support, based on the needs as defined by the SME. The scheme also offers help with business expertise, training, access to computer resources, and financing.

The scheme forms part of an ambitious national strategy entitled Industrie du Futur : transformer le modèle industriel par le numérique launched by the French Government earlier this year. Part of the plan is to ready France for ‘The data economy’, encouraging better management and use of data in companies and public services.

The strategy will support companies in the mastery of the basic technologies, particularly for supercomputing, to preserve French industry’s position in the top five computing powers worldwide and, in particular develop an innovative offering led by SMEs and start-ups, notably in the field of big data, while supporting sector-based initiatives for the use of supercomputing, the cloud and big data by public and private entities.

The problem of the lack of uptake of HPC by SMEs was set out in Why do smaller companies shun HPC? the first report in this series from ISC High Performance held in Frankfurt last week. Germany’s efforts to improve SMEs’ access to HPC, and thus make supercomputing suitable for the Mittelstand, are discussed in A portal opens to German HPC centers.

This story appears here as part of a cross-publishing agreement with Scientific Computing World.

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  1. I just wanted to highlight that further announcements were made at ISC15, specifically addressing SMEs and HPC, and to draw attention to the Network of HPC Competency Centres for SMEs (SESAME.NET) that has just been set up specifically to address some of the comments raised by Herr Kohler (H2020 EINFRA6). I am sure that the project partners would like to draft an article that picks up on some of these points and the aims and aspirations, for a future publication, and to ‘launch’ more widely the Network, but a brief introduction was presented at the H2020 session at ISC – see: