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HPC, the driving force behind engineering simulation?

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

Once limited to large-scale applications in the automotive, aerospace and defense sectors, over recent years engineering simulation is increasingly being applied to smaller scale, but no less valuable, R&D challenges. As customers demand higher quality products and more choice, companies are having to respond with faster, lower-cost prototyping and design, all delivered on time and within budget. To help meet this challenge high-performance computing (HPC) is rapidly becoming a fixture in the engineering simulation product design cycle. 

New potential 

The need for agility is never more apparent than in manufacturing, where we are creating products today more complex than ever, especially when taking advantage of the latest manufacturing techniques such as additive and subtractive manufacturing. Traditional design and manufacture methodologies, as well as the once leisurely timeframes, are simply not the way to stay ahead of the competition today. 

Computer-based simulation has been well-established for decades, but we are continuing to see more smaller organizations and engineering teams realizing its potential for the first time and being able to take advantage of simulating tests that would be impractical or uneconomical to carry out on physical prototypes. 

Affordability too is a huge draw. While designing and testing a product in the computer-generated virtual world before actually building a physical prototype has the key benefit of being fast, it also brings with it lower costs. The benefits mean that engineering simulation makes sense from a financial point of view for a wider range of end-users across various industrial sectors and organization sizes. 

Limitations of the single user workstation model 

Whilst the benefits of engineering simulation are clear, in many organizations even when the use of engineering simulation becomes an established part of the product development process, innovation can quickly become hindered by the IT equipment, often relying on single-user workstations, that are being used to process these simulations. Users can be limited in the number of simulations they can run or simulations simply taking too long to complete. This is where HPC comes in.  

Centralizing resource 

In simple terms, a HPC cluster combines a number of identical servers, a fast network, and some management tools to give a single pool of compute resource that can be shared across a number of users. Simulations can be submitted to a scheduler (essentially a queue) and run across multiple servers simultaneously, returning results quicker than could ever be possible on a single workstation. Very much divide and conquer. 

By centralizing resources amongst a number of users, and using the scheduler to queue up jobs, the HPC cluster can be kept busy 24/7, so in addition to being able to deliver results quicker, can also offer much higher utilization, and therefore simulation throughput, than an equivalent amount of compute capability spread across multiple users. With the additional benefit that users’ workstations are freed up and they can concentrate on other engineering work, rather than waiting around for jobs to finish.

Scalability

The current generation of compute nodes are available with a wide range of resources, with up to hundreds of computational cores and 10s of terabytes of memory.  The use of a highspeed interconnect like InfiniBand makes it efficient to scale jobs across multiple compute nodes, allowing the running of larger more detailed simulations. Overall this scalability empowers engineers to seek better solutions and design more optimized products resulting in a competitive edge for the firm. 

Data efficiency, integrity and resiliency 

Whilst many firms use a shared network attached filesystem to share data, the limitations of local area network speeds often result in larger datasets stored locally on individual workstations. A shared parallel filesystem can be tightly coupled to the HPC over a highspeed interconnect so that only one copy of data needs be stored and accessed from all nodes in the cluster. 

Empower a remote workforce 

End-User PCs need fewer resources, reducing the desktop compute requirement to conventional desktop PC or laptop as opposed to higher power consumption specialist workstation models. This results in the user getting a much quieter and portable device with huge performance provided by the centralized HPC.  HPC doesn’t stop users with interactive workloads – modern visualization software can enable remote working by efficiently compressing the video stream over a wide area network delivering comparable performance to a local machine whilst data remains secure within the data center. This benefits the engineers with greater flexibility of working environment, and the firm enabling recruitment of top talent from a larger global remote workforce. 

Misconceptions 

There is a perception that the entry point to HPC is huge and the complexity of HPC systems makes these systems beyond the reach of organizations using 10’s of high spec workstations for engineering simulation. Whilst I won’t deny there is some inherent complexity this can be mitigated against - the key here is to work with the right partners and with the right technologies – there are software products out there that make adopting these technologies much easier and specialist integrators, like OCF, that take the pain out of designing, installing and managing these systems. 

With HPC hardware and software systems evolving to become more powerful and accessible, this has led to them becoming more readily available for faster design iterations.

Opportunity 

If manufacturers make HPC tightly integrated with their engineering simulation applications, it can be possible to make HPC just another tool for engineers. Selecting HPC systems can be as straightforward as choosing a printer making it easier to benefit from the capabilities HPC systems give you: high utilization and scale. 

By moving away from engineering simulation being performed on discrete workstations by engineers working in isolation, a HPC system can bring these single sources together, into one big, centralized pool. Which results in each individual engineer having access to a much bigger resource. 

This in turn means that they can get results back quicker because they can run the same simulation over many more machines, or they can run more complex challenges and expect to get the results back at the same time.

Basically, HPC now enables engineers to do things that they previously weren’t able to do.

Andrew Dean, Sales Director, OCF

Andrew Dean, Sales Director, OCF.