The Renaissance Computing Institute’s high performance computing cluster quickly generates better intelligence about coastal hazards and risk. Courtesy of RENCIThrough the HPC Impact Showcase, SC14 aims to underscore just how far-reaching its influence has become

High performance computing (HPC) is rarely discussed in casual conversation in the lunchroom, at the supermarket check stand, or over a cappuccino at the local café.

The complexity of high-end computing technology makes it largely invisible to the public. HPC simply lacks the Sputnik sex appeal of the space race, to which current global competition in supercomputing is often compared. Rather, it is seen as the exclusive realm of academia and national labs, if seen at all. Yet, the impact of HPC reaches into almost every aspect of daily life — from energy, transportation, communication and medicine to infrastructure, finance, business management and the manufacture of both new and traditional consumer products.

The organizers of the annual Supercomputing Conference (SC) had this reach in mind when selecting the “HPC Matters” theme for the 26th edition of the international gathering of leaders in HPC, networking, storage and analysis. SC14 will take place in New Orleans November 16 to 21.

“We thought it was time to recognize the breadth and depth of HPC’s impact and its importance to our future,” said Trish Damkroger, chair of SC14. “By bringing attention to the pervasiveness of HPC, we aim to show businesses large and small the benefits of HPC and to recruit new talent to a rapidly growing field.”

To help raise awareness of HPC, SC14 is inviting attendees from within the industry to share their stories of how HPC has transformed their endeavors through the HPC Impact Showcase:

These stories will help illustrate how the supercomputing capabilities developed by leading universities, research institutions and national laboratories for basic science and national security are now being applied to problems that help businesses be more competitive and improve the quality of daily life.


Growing recognition of the importance of HPC to the innovation that underpins economic competitiveness has led to the proliferation of programs making HPC resources and expertise at universities and research institutions available to companies of all sizes. For example, the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) is working with Engineering Mechanics Corporation of Columbus (Emc2) to develop a cloud-based tool that will simulate welding processes used in the manufacture of metallic products.

An engineering firm leveraged HPC to model the residual stresses found in a deep-sea oil rig panel. Improved design aimed at controlling these stresses can improve the fatigue properties and corrosion life of structures used in deep sea drilling. Courtesy of Emc2With $1M in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Small Business Innovation Research program, Emc2 aims to adapt a welding design software package called Virtual Fabrication Technology to an “app” more accessible to small- and medium-sized manufacturers who otherwise lack the means to tap HPC resources. Work is being conducted under the auspices of OSC’s AweSim effort, a public-private initiative to promote industry’s use of modeling and simulation.²_wins_grant_to_create_virtual_fabrication_technology_app

“By making simulation-driven design through HPC more accessible, small and mid-sized manufacturers are able to reduce costs, cut prototyping time and generate better designs,” said Alan Chalker, Ph.D., director of the AweSim initiative. “This ability represents a competitive advantage for companies that take the leap — leading to increased sales and market share, both nationally and internationally.”

Closer to the home front, HPC is improving products found on supermarket shelves. From potato chips and their packaging to everyday soap products, companies are employing HPC to gain an advantage in a highly competitive global market.

Proctor & Gamble teamed with Temple University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to use simulations on the Jaguar supercomputer to better understand the formulations, down to the molecular level, of such products as shampoo in an effort to improve product performance. HPC can identify molecular characteristics that are not observable experimentally. -

“P&G fully understands the value of modeling and simulation,” said Tom Lange, associate director of modeling and simulation at P&G. “Over the last 15 years, researchers responsible for products like Pampers have used modeling and simulation to reduce, by over 50 percent, the number of experiments involved in their process design. We would like to achieve the same goal when it comes to designing formulated products like shampoos and fabric enhancers.”

On the transportation front, automobile manufacturers have been using supercomputers to improve the fuel efficiency and safety of cars. Likewise, auto parts manufacturers have been using HPC to improve the quality, production and distribution of components. In a 2011 case study published by the Council on Competitiveness, Ford executive Nand Kochhar said: “The combination of HPC and computer-aided engineering simulation technology is a key enabler of our product development process. We provide advanced computational capabilities for Ford not just as a service, but as an integrated enabler of company business strategy.”  

Similarly, HPC has helped aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing, to significantly reduce the design-to-production time of new aircraft. Other sectors of the aircraft industry also are leveraging HPC. GE Global Research in collaboration with Cornell University has used supercomputers at Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge national labs to improve jet engine efficiency through simulation.  


In an increasingly interconnected global financial market, financial institutions are using HPC to manage assets and risk, especially since the economic downturn of 2007. Forbes reported in 2012 that JP Morgan is using a supercomputer “to measure risk in its fixed-income operations by assessing tens of thousands of possible market scenarios.” The Maxeler supercomputer, acquired by the investment bank in 2012, allowed the calculation of complex scenarios in just minutes that previously took hours, according to Forbes, which also reported the company was planning to acquire a second supercomputer.

HPCWales, a collaboration of Welsh universities, government and Fujitsu, is using the power of supercomputers to study macroeconomic models to better understand financial trends and avoid dramatic events such as the economic crisis of 2007. A recent case study notes that “economic models did a poor job of predicting the crisis and the resulting global recession.”  


A growing number of companies are leveraging the power of HPC to develop new drug therapies and improve the delivery of health care through personalized medicine, according to a report by the Council on Competitiveness. One such company is GNS, a privately held biotechnology company based in Cambridge, MA. GNS is applying supercomputing to breakthroughs in genomics to develop new drugs.

Created to leverage the data made available by the Human Genome Project, GNS uses supercomputers “to create models of human disease progression and drug responses,” says the council in a report entitled “Bringing the Power of to Drug Discovery and the Delivery of ‘Smarter’ Health Care.”

“In our world, it’s true that HPC has made GNS and our partners more competitive and profitable,” said Colin Hill, CEO and president of GNS, in the council case study. “And yes, it certainly has sped up our projects and dramatically cut the amount of time it takes to get answers. But, I think one of the biggest benefits of HPC is that, inevitably, when scientists have more and more computing power in their hands, they ask bigger questions and tackle more ambitious projects.”

In addition, in collaboration with universities and national labs, companies such as IBM are developing increasingly sophisticated models of the human body with all its complex systems — advances that bring “personalized medicine” closer to reality.

Public safety

Track map of Hurricane Sandy of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.Supercomputing also is being employed for public safety and emergency response. The Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill is using supercomputers to provide advance warning of storm surges. Public officials and emergency responders use the resulting forecasts to help make evacuation decisions, deploy emergency services and position supplies.

Detailed and advanced warning of the storms that periodically batter the North Carolina coast has the potential to save billions in damage to homes, businesses and tourist facilities. RENCI’s modeling work is based on the same software used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to update coastal floodplain maps.  

Building a better future

Through the Department of Energy, the federal government has created innovation clusters and hubs that bring together universities, national labs and industry to build more energy-efficient communities. One such project is the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster. Supercomputer models are playing a key role in the design of more energy-efficient buildings.

Led by Penn State University, the cluster established in Philadelphia’s Naval Yard serves as a national center for energy efficient building research, education, policy and commercialization. One of the goals of the research is to develop integrated end-to-end code for simulating building fluid/thermal flows.

The potential impact of this research is significant. The building sector consumes about 40 percent of the energy used in the United States and is responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. A 50-percent reduction in buildings’ energy usage would be equivalent to taking every passenger vehicle and small truck in the United States off the road.

As the world enters a period of extreme urbanization, city infrastructures will have to accommodate much larger numbers of people. MIT’s Media Lab estimates that, if current trends hold in China, 300 million rural inhabitants will move to cities, requiring the construction of an infrastructure equivalent to the one housing the entire population of the United States.  

MIT has launched a City Science Initiative, which seeks partners from industry and government to address the need to update obsolete planning methodologies and develop data-driven urban design approaches to reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions and to improve livability. HPC will certainly play a key role in the development of these new approaches.

As the largest annual gathering of the HPC community, SC14 will offer a window to the future, as well as highlight how HPC science and technology are being applied in diverse domains. Through the HPC Impact Showcase, the supercomputing community aims to underscore just how far-reaching the influence of HPC has become. 

“We don’t expect HPC to become the hot topic of dinnertime conversation anytime soon,” says Damkroger, a deputy director for Computation at Lawrence Livermore. “However, as the benefits of supercomputing become more evident, we do expect growing recognition that HPC Matters to our quality of life, economic well-being and security.”

Don Johnston is a member of the SC14 Communications Committee and Press Officer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He may be reached at