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A fair wind of change for integrators

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More complex clusters mean more scope for integrators - provided they know what their customers need, as Tom Wilkie discovers

Integrators ‘make complex solutions out of simple components,’ jokes Julian Fielden, managing director of UK-based HPC integrator OCF. Yet as the technology of high-performance computing becomes more complex – with the arrival of GPU accelerators, Intel ‘co-processors, and so on – and as customers’ needs become more complex – with markedly different types of jobs being run on ‘private clouds’ – is there really scope for small to medium-sized integrators to serve the market? Will they not inevitably be out-stripped by the major players, the IBMs, Dells, HPs and Crays of this world?

According to Eva Cherry, president and CEO of Silicon Mechanics: ‘The wind is changing, in a good but challenging way. The complexity and the technology that drives cloud, virtualisation, and big data, really forces organisations to look at re-architecting their environment.’ Within limited budgets, there is a need for the system to be flexible, which means a shift to commodity hardware, she continued. ‘Our thinking was: “What if we were able to offer a different type of experience to our customers? One that doesn’t just focus on hardware components, or even how to integrate them, but one where value is being added from the moment that someone gets in touch with Silicon Mechanics?” We made it our business to create an individualised customer experience for every customer who comes to us.’

Her analysis of the state of HPC and the role of the integrator chimes precisely with Fielden’s on the other side of the Atlantic: ‘My view is that integrators are vital, because there is no one Tier 1 that supplies the whole solution.’ According to Fielden: ‘The solutions are now far more complex than they were. There is a requirement to balance the compute and the I/O to make the system efficient, and to get intelligent scheduling to ensure that time is not wasted. There isn’t a Tier1 that does all that.’

David Power, head of HPC at UK-based Boston, agrees with the growth in complexity: ‘You’re looking at a complex matrix of permutations and components within HPC nowadays’. Boston might originally have been considered more of a component distributor but, he continued: ‘Over the years we evolved to reach into the solution and HPC space. We are today capable of delivering full turnkey HPC solutions for our end-customers. From the hardware, to the software stack, to the application integration, we do all of those steps in house and can deliver and work with other partners to deliver HPC solutions for different markets.’

But it is not just the technology that is becoming more complex. The purposes to which users put their systems are also evolving, according to Fielden. ‘Systems are now becoming multi-purpose,’ he said. ‘Ten years ago, you’d buy a machine that would run one code, maybe. It was easy to put together and design. Now, where systems are required to be production machines serving internal customers – an internal cloud if you will – there’s a far greater requirement for things other than the “tin” to make it work efficiently. That’s why there needs to be an integrator, as opposed to a reseller. The thing needs to be designed for purpose.’

Power from Boston agrees with this trend, especially among university-based customers: ‘Within the academic space, HPC is a central tool for a wide range of diverse academics to fulfil their scientific roles. A decade ago, a university might have had ten different clusters, hidden around the place in broom cupboards. There has been a drive to centralise the resource, where you will have Linux and compilers experts working with scientists to run their code. But this centralisation also introduces complications. Computational chemistry people might have the need for much larger globally addressable memory space; whereas if you look at theoretical physics, those guys might be running parametric sweeps and want more and more cores. This is where getting that balance becomes a challenge.’ On the other hand, he said: ‘Commercial users are more finely tuned around single applications, so with manufacturing we might be trying to optimise CFD-type applications. We have to tweak and amend our standard platforms, either to be highly tuned for specific requirements, or to try and make them well balanced for a wider range of requirements.’

The same theme permeates Eva Cherry’s discussion: ‘Customers want their lives to be easier and no negative surprises. They expect us to get it right and consistently so. The bottom line is the ability of an integrator to create a customer experience. How do we differentiate ourselves? It’s about the customer experience that we have to create.’

The trend in academic research in the USA however, does not mirror that in the UK and to some extent the rest of Europe. According to Cherry, rather than centralised facilities buying the supercomputer, for Silicon Mechanics: ‘The majority of our sales in research computing are grant-based or start-up fund based. What a lot of universities do is create a central purchasing function with an approved vendor list, so it is easier for the researchers to buy what they need. But researchers are typically allowed to buy from whatever vendor they wish to work with. For integrators, it’s important to be on both that list of approved vendors and to develop partnerships directly with those researchers who receive grant funds.’

But in the US as well, the requirements of academic and commercial customers diverge: ‘A researcher at the University of Washington who has just won a several million dollar grant from the NIH or NSF has different needs and expectations from someone in the commercial sector who is building a private cloud. Education and research are focused on open technology and the cluster side of things; whereas, in private sector, the question is “what is my business case, and total cost of ownership?” 

‘Customers, in the past, would come to us and know what they wanted. The input they expected from us was at a much lower level. But because things have become much more complex, it’s become a challenge for people to keep track of the latest technology and how it should be used. The expectation on the integrator is much higher: to come up with different options; and come up with pros and cons; and introduce customers to technology they may not have heard of. Our role has changed a lot.’

But the demands on integrators are changing not only at the ‘front end’ – when it comes to making a sale – the post-sales support role is also changing. Fielden sees post-sales support as key to the role of the integrator in this new phase of high-performance computing: ‘For every system that we have supplied, they have a support requirement and that will vary. We pride ourselves that we design our solutions according to the needs of the particular customer. Some customers need far more support than others, so we involve ourselves in project-development workshops to work out what the best level of support for a customer is.’

With commodity components, the nature of post-sales support is changing. For hardware, the support tends to be a manufacturer’s warranty, and if it breaks, a commodity component may just be thrown away. But, he continued: ‘From a systems-support perspective, our business is increasing. The support contract is an insurance policy for the systems administrator. These systems tend to be internally managed but they need second-line support, which might be a combination of incident-based support, and time-based review type support – quarterly visits to review how the system is running, and how we can do it more efficiently. That is an increasing part of our business.’

Again, the situation is paralleled on the other side of the Atlantic. ‘Over the past couple of years, we have morphed our support organisation from replacing faulty components to an engineering-support function,’ Cherry said. ‘Sometimes the challenge may lie in the software, not the hardware, and the expectation becomes that we will help them solve whatever the problem is. Because we are designing thousands of systems each year, we can draw on those use-cases. We have that information documented so we can draw on it.’ Integrating all the knowledge that is held within the company to make sure it is available when called on, is the challenge that Silicon Mechanics is tackling now. However it is done, customers’ expectations mean that the support service is more than just the warranty obligation.

It is, in the end, this ability to get close to, and understand, the customer that is the secret of success for integrators. According to Power: ‘HPC is a challenging industry, most of our pre-sales teams come from an HPC background. I myself was a user of HPC in an academic institute, so I have had that experience of having to procure and buy systems from vendors and as well as that having to run a service locally. Having that technical understanding is what is needed to work alongside customers and provide the solution that is right for them.’

For Cherry: ‘The market is there and is growing. What customers value most is the service and support they get from us. It’s a great space to be in, if you can figure out how to create that customer experience.’

Summing up the distinctive role of the integrator, Fielden said: ‘Our value sits above the hardware and software: it’s the skills we have in designing the solution, pulling it together, and supporting it. We have a library of thousands of scripts written over the years that help the systems to run better.’ An integrator needs to be professional all the way through and its services now need to be ‘enterprise class’, he said.

Without the services of a good integrator: ‘You’ll get the bag of bits, instead of a system.’