ost of us know how expensive it can be keeping up with the latest upgrades in software and hardware for our personal computers. But what if your business hinges on using the latest applications and services to deliver cutting-edge products to your clients?
Keeping up with the Joneses in IT is undoubtedly an expensive undertaking. Fortunately, massive investments in upgrades may soon be a thing of the past for Singapore-based engineering and manufacturing firms, thanks to the efforts of the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC).
Formed through a merger between the Centre for Computational Mechanics and the National Supercomputing Research Centre, the IHPC is one of the 13 research institutes supported by the National Science and Technology Board.
The institute has been playing fairy godmother to local firms for two years now by helping them increase their competitiveness by developing and using high performance computing-based (HPC) simulation and visualisation.
A year ago, when studying the needs of the small- and medium-sized engineering and manufacturing companies, the researchers at the IHPC's Computing Services and Research (CSR) division found two very striking similarities.
The Original 2000 Supercomputer is one of the main servers for the E-engineering portal (Picture on left: The original 2000 Supercomputer is one of the main servers for the E-engineering portal)
The first was the lack of access to affordable HPC resources for doing research and development (R & D) work. Companies that wanted to stay competitive had to use the most up-to-date software, but most of them found these constant upgrades very costly.
Many engineering and manufacturing firms also did not have enough experience or know-how to combine their area of expertise with relevant HPC solutions.
After analysing its own operations through staff conferences, and discussions with both existing and potential clients, the institute realised that its outreach had been limited because its services were provided mainly at its physical premises.
Fortunately, the solution to the problem was surprisingly simple? putting its engineering applications and consultancy services on the Internet through the aptly-named E-engineering portal.
Dr Terence Hung, CSR's then manager said: "Although portals such as this have been used to aid in engineering research work at universities in the US, this is the first time a portal is being used to serve the needs of small- and medium-sized commercial firms."
Very simply, the portal gives users access to a range of advanced engineering applications and services through the Internet. These applications and services are from the IHPC itself, as well as vendors and consultancy firms that wish to use this portal to reach more customers.
Added Hung, who is now with the Sun-Netscape Alliance: "Users will no longer have to be concerned about costly upgrades for software or hardware, as everything will be provided by the people managing the portal. All the users need is a Web browser to access the software and hardware found through the portal."
Although the idea of using portals is fast gaining popularity as a tool for knowledge acquisition (such as with Ask Jeeves.com and others), the E-engineering portal takes the capability one step further by using the concept for "harder", more specialised industries such as engineering and manufacturing.
So far, a number of local and regional application vendors have welcomed this initiative by agreeing to provide software for the portal. These comments from CAD-IT, a local engineering consultancy firm, are typical.
Said Mr William Moy, vice-president of business development: "The portal is a good way for us to tap into the resources of the IHPC and reach a wider clientele for our services. Together with the services that IHPC itself offers, the portal is like a one-stop centre for users who need to access the latest engineering applications at a lower cost."
According to Hung, the enthusiasm that local firms have shown toward the portal is not surprising, as many hardware and software vendors, especially in the US, are already pushing this technology as another avenue for promoting their products. One example is Sun Microsystems' move to provide StarPortal and its latest Ray-1 thin-client which offers word-processing and spreadsheet applications, as well as presentation software (see For Further Reading).
WIDE RANGE OF COMPUTER PLATFORMS
The services that the IHPC provides are facilitated in part by the institute's wide range of computer platforms. One example is the Silicon Graphics Origin 2000 which has the capability of producing a mind-boggling 34 billion calculations per second, making it one of the most powerful machines in Asia.
Complementing the IHPC's bountiful hardware resources is an impressive representative suite of applications for a number of disciplines, such as computational fluid dynamics, structural analysis, chemistry, electronics design, electromagnetic compliance/interference, micro-electromechanical systems and data analysis.
Said Hung: "Our well-balanced suite of software also provides the applications that are commonly used in the different branches of engineering and manu-facturing. This is quite an extensive list as there are literally hundreds of software packages that are available for both these industries, even in a relatively small sector of engineering such as computer-aided design."
TARGET USER GROUPS
There are two main categories of users that the IHPC is targeting. The first group knows what applications and services they need to use and are able to access them accordingly. The other category of end-users, whom Hung refers to as the "novice" group, will probably need to be guided through the engineering programs by consultants.
Some of the services available to help this novice end-user include knowledge-based functions such as a search engine for technical information, a database of the latest statistics pertaining to the industry, online interaction between the consultants at the IHPC and their clients, as well as videoconferencing for engineering-related work.
A possible scenario could be if an engineer wants some information from a pager drop test simulation. He can pose a question on some possible results to the database, and the answer will be retrieved if it is available through the portal. This way, the client will not have to waste time or resources repeating the test.
(Picture on left: A typical interface of the E-engineering portal)
If the information is not available on the database, the client's request will be forwarded to a consultant who has experience in simulations of this kind, either online or offline.
Added Moy: "This interactive nature of portal is what we were most impressed with. We are able to provide consultancy services online and in real time."
In addition, the user only makes a one-time payment to the IHPC for the services of the consultant who advises him, regardless of whether the latter is from the IHPC or a commercial consultancy firm. Besides making the portal convenient for users, the IHPC has worked to ensure the high quality of the services it provides. Its team of researchers for example is highly experienced in their own domain knowledge, and is able to share accurate and qualitative knowledge with the IHPC clients.
Observed Hung: "The investment that IHPC has made in finding capable manpower with a wide range of expertise certainly bears fruit in this case. The IHPC staff has expertise in various areas of speciality, from chemistry to electrical design, providing the know-how to tackle problems faced by the engineering sector. This wide domain expertise is especially useful as many projects being conducted these days are multidisciplinary."
Another key benefit of this Web-based portal is that it enables end-users to use a collaborative infrastructure to communicate with consultants, fellow engineers or business partners from around the world.
Said Hung: "With businesses becoming more globalised, many firms are finding it increasingly important to tap into resources available around the world. Now staff, such as engineers from other countries, can work on a single project with greater ease, using exactly the same resources."
This version of outsourcing makes sense as engineering software and HPC resources are known to consume a large portion of project budget. Companies are also free from worrying about vendor support; version upgrade and maintenance of equipment, as the applications are available through the portal.
Boosting R & D Efforts
Besides providing the users with more efficient tools, the portal can also help small- and medium-sized enterprises to lower their total cost of ownership. Hung explained: "The ability to access HPC technology also means that more what-if design scenarios can be explored and that turnaround time for new innovations is shorter. In this way, the manufacturing sector, in particular, will enjoy even better overall competitiveness."
"Industries can concentrate on their core expertise without losing sleep over how to justify investment in hardware and software resources."
This infrastructure can also act as an incentive to multinational companies to set up engineering and R & D centres in Singapore, boosting the island's efforts in improving its research and development facilities.
Still, in order to make the E-engineering portal work for them, most companies need to ensure that requirements from the logistics point of view are met, such as ubiquitous and affordable access to broad bandwidth capability; a well-designed software framework; middleware and components; intuitive and easy-to-use computers as well as a secure e-commerce framework.
From the business angle, there are other considerations, which include a new software licensing arrangement to accommodate the transaction nature of the portal world.
Hung explained: "When you need to use a certain software, it is necessary to buy the entire package, and in effect its ownership licence as well. With the portal, the user will be charged only when he uses the software (perhaps paying for the length of time he uses it), and not for the licence. Software vendors who are interested in putting their software on portals will therefore have to move away from the more traditional licensing scheme."
Alternatively, the users can pay for the software on a subscription rate basis, perhaps monthly or quarterly. This is particularly useful in the case of repeat customers. Explained Hung: "How clients will pay for use of the program really depends on the nature of the vendor's business. Some businesses may prefer the use of the subscription mode, while others the transaction mode."
The portal may also encourage engineers to use the more expensive software that they might have otherwise ignored because of its cost. As the user gets familiar with the program, he may also look for more opportunities to use it.
Just as the uses for the portal extended beyond e-commerce to include the E-engineering portal, Hung believes that it may one day be used in entertainment, education and even medical technology, together with MIRAGE, the IHPC's visual simulation facility. Said Hung: "Perhaps in the near future, we will also be able to take telemedicine a step further, by allowing medical practitioners to be able to simulate even more detailed operation procedure."
For more information on the E-engineering portal, please go to: www.ihpc.nus.edu.sg
For Further Reading: Sun Microsystems' StarPortal: www.sun.com/products/staroffice/cover/
How a Client uses a Portal
There are two ways a user can access the information and services provided on the portal.
The first is targeted at the experienced user, wherein he will personally choose the software he requires for his needs. It could be a software he is already familiar with, or something that he knows will do the required procedure. All the user needs to do is to select the program through the portal and run it.
The user interface or the on-screen prompter that guides the user through different levels in a program, is different each time he uses a new program.
The user interface for the second system, targeted at the novice user is quite different.
The user simply lists the specific data parameters and characteristics that should be used in the test, on a generic user interface. For example, for a chemistry test, a user would list information such as the interaction behaviour for a certain molecule, the names of the molecules, and so on.
He will then have to specify what the end product should be. When all the necessary information is presented, the backend engine (run by the IHPC staff) will review it, sift through the plethora of programs available and use the one that best fits his requirement to perform the task. The whole time, the user interface that the user sees is the same.
As Hung observed: "The key here is functionality of the features rather than specific application."
He added that the system is ideal for the novice who does not have much experience with the capabilities of the programs available and may need more guidance. The end result for both systems, however, is the same.
After the simulation work is complete, the portal also presents the user with the capability to visualise the data. This is done by studying and visualising numerical value and colour-coding the numerical data.
For example, an area of the test object that is hot can be in red to reflect this. The other is by providing a 3D version of the information. This helps the information to be analysed better since users will be able to see the spatial aspect of the test, for example in airflow tests.