HPC simulation (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

How industrial partners can help HPC centers thrive

On the same day that the White House released its research and development priorities for fiscal year 2019, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign issued a new report offering advice for high-performance computing centers and businesses interested in taking advantage of HPC resources.

Much of the nation's basic and applied research depends on HPC systems housed at the Energy Department's national labs, regional supercomputing centers and universities.  The Trump administration's memo stresses the importance of such collaboration, and the NCSA report --"Worldwide Best Practices in Partnerships between HPC Centers and Industrial Users" -- describes the benefits of such arrangements to both parties and offers advice for HPC centers for increasing industry participation.

Broadly speaking, HPC centers reported benefits including "unexpected new pathways for science, increased motivation and retention of their scientific and computational personnel, and additional revenue for reinvestment in the centers."  Increased competitiveness, faster development of products and services and new discoveries were the chief benefits cited by the industrial partners.

Because of the increasing recognition that HPC can accelerate "industrial and economic competitiveness as well as scientific progress," pressure is mounting on publicly supported centers to provide more HPC access for industrial R&D.

However, challenges exist on all sides that are based on a culture gap:  HPC centers that have previously been dedicated to scientific research may not be sensitive or accommodating to the needs of industry partners.  Businesses may have difficulty accepting the constraints under which a lab operates – limits on the pace of work, restrictions on participation by foreign students and prohibitions against using government funding in ways that could give a company a competitive advantage. Similarly, government agencies may be challenged by frameworks that limit the amount of collaboration with industry, overbooked HPC resources, inadequate funding, as well as not appreciating the benefits or collaboration.

To make such partnerships successful, the report suggests HPC centers consider the following practices:

Take the industry focus seriously. Centers should add industry engagement to their mission statements, choose HPC systems and software with industry in mind, focus on domains the HPC center knows well and assign experienced staff members to work with industrial users.

Provide opportunities for both open and proprietary research. Both open and proprietary industrial research can produce benefits for an HPC center, such as identifying new use cases for the center's scientific research and boosting the morale of center researchers via opportunities to work on industrial problems. Additionally, HPC centers can charge market prices for use of their HPC resources for proprietary industrial research.

Expect some industrial partners to be first-time HPC users. Nearly half of the industrial partners interviewed for the study said their collaboration with an HPC center was their first experience using the advanced technology. Increased communication on both sides related to deadlines, timelines, processes, facility closures, data privacy and security will improve the likelihood of projects' success.

Use marketing professionals to help recruit industrial users. Although a few HPC centers have earned reputations that attract industrial users, most of the centers advocated active marketing and public relations -- from attending industry meetings and conferences to disseminating success stories. Focusing on a small number of domains, especially location-based specialties (like automotive research near Detroit) will also help HPC centers focus their marketing and appeal.

Set clear expectations at the start. Centers and industrial users should agree on what to expect related to contracts, legal and IP considerations, the composition and expectations of the project team, methodologies, contributions from the industrial user and the nature and extent of the HPC resources the center will provide. Additionally, be sure both sides understand what constitutes success, how success will be shared and any provisions or options for follow-on collaboration.

Streamline the process for intellectual property and contract agreements. Industrial users were often frustrated with how long it took to complete contractual agreements with the HPC centers. Both parties reported frustration at the lack of umbrella agreements to allow new projects with the same user.

Plan for budget discussions. Because it may be difficult for HPC centers to expand support for industrial users without additional funding, create a written plan with an appropriate budget for discussion with funders.

Partnerships between research centers and industrial users can pay dividends for both parties.

Hyperion Research, which produced this report, has a study in progress for the Department of Energy showing that every dollar invested in HPC "yields $551 in additional revenue and $52 in additional profits or cost savings" for the industrial partners.  Investment also accelerates and increases the impact of scientific innovations, along with greater industrial and economic competitiveness.

Read the full study here.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA from West Chester University and an MA in English from the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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