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Innovation Center opens in Switzerland

In an effort to help the engineering world learn how to set up and take advantage of scientific applications running on its operating systems, Microsoft has joined with Fujitsu and GIB Solutions AG (a Swiss dealer for Fujitsu) in setting up and funding the first Microsoft Innovation Center for Technical Computing. It is being established at HSR (University of Applied Sciences) in Rapperswil, about an hour southeast of Zurich.

Why this location? In 2003, a group at HSR Rapperswil led by Professor Hansjörg Huser recognised the need for expertise in .NET programming and applications, and so set up a group devoted to that technology. This .NET Competence Center proved so successful that in 2008 Microsoft decided to include it in its programme of Innovation Centers for various technologies. More recently, people at the university saw the need for a similar programme devoted to high-performance computing; the foremost among them being Dr Henrik Nordborg, director of the Microsoft Innovation Center for Technical Computing.

Dr Nordborg has extensive experience in scientific modelling on all sides through his work at Argonne National Laboratories; as an engineering manager at ABB, where he set up that company’s simulation group; as a representative for Ansys; and now as a professor of physics who is setting up a formal programme in numeric simulations.

‘There’s enormous potential for simulation and other scientific computing, but the technology is still difficult to use, especially if a company doesn’t have a dedicated computer science staff. We want to make this technology accessible to companies of all sizes through education, training and the development of tools. Besides, there are not very many places where people with expertise in Microsoft software talk to scientific and engineering programmers, and we want to provide such an environment. In addition, we are unique in that we provide a “business” focus, bridging the gap between research and the real world.’

The first step in setting up the centre is with a reference system consisting of 32 Fujitsu servers (a combination of RX200 and CX122 units), each with 12 Xeon dual-core E5645 2.4-GHz processors and 24G of RAM. ‘True, this is a fairly small cluster setup by some standards,’ admits Nordborg, ‘but there is also a huge disparity between what is being used at large research laboratories and in industry. We feel here we can address the real-world needs of industrial users.’

In a second step, the centre will offer computational engineering consulting for firms looking to take advantage of the technology. And even further off is the possibility of doing software development and research for technical computing, tapping resources from other Swiss institutions such as the ETH Zurich, which has done considerable research in algorithms. In a type of technology transfer, the centre could refine and commercialise many of these developments. ‘It would also be great to have an API just for HPC,’ adds Nordborg. ‘With it you could submit an intelligent task to a queue and the system would send the job to the most appropriate machine. I’d like to see a world where you can plug in an HPC device as easily as you can plug in a printer.’

Other possible projects include making it easy to integrate software such as Argonne’s PETSc (Portable, Extensible Toolkit for Scientific Computation) into Visual Studio. Here, Nordborg hopes to develop an installer that will reduce the time needed to write code for parallel processors. This is the kind of work that a university would not typically assign to a doctoral student. At this centre, though, there is more flexibility: such work would be funded in part by a grant from Fujitsu, which will cover a 50 per cent position for four years, and Nordborg is free to use these funds any way he sees fit.

Microsoft intends to use the Innovation Center for Technical Computing for several purposes. First, it will serve as a showcase to demonstrate how to best use the latest software. In addition, the company intends to run a continual series of courses in HPC at HSR Rapperswil using this cluster. The official opening of the centre will take place on 7 June 2011, with the ceremony including speakers from the HSR University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil, the Economic Development Agency of the Canton of Schwyz, ABB Semiconductors, Microsoft and Fujitsu. As for future growth, the centre currently has two people and two more will be added soon; in five years, Nordborg hopes to have a staff of 15.

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