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Paul Owen

Supercomputers were once the exclusive province of government spy agencies, research labs and academics. The top computer makers were the only vendors. Things have changed since Seymour Cray introduced the first machine at Control Data in 1965. One of the biggest changes is how many of the vendors are now in the Seattle area. With the top server cloud and OS vendors ranked by revenue, Seattle can claim supercomputer leadership.

I came to Supercomputing the hard way in 1997 through marketing strategy and PR assignments for our clients Intel, Cray, IBM and HP. When we started there was only one local supercomputing vendor, Tera Computer. Today Amazon Web Services, Corensic, Cray, Isilon, Microsoft, Opscode, Pogo Storage, Silicon Mechanics and others serve the supercomputing market from the Seattle area.

This week the industry’s largest conference, Supercomputing 2011, takes place at the Washington Convention and Trade Center. This marks the conference’s second visit to Seattle. Ten thousand attendees will fill the Convention Center (and the Cheesecake Factory, across the street).

Having the conference in Seattle reflects changes in the local industry. For example, Tera Computer, which acquired Cray Research in 2000, today has about 150 employees in Pioneer Square, and hundreds more in Minnesota. But the big changes started in recent years when Microsoft introduced Microsoft Server 2008 for High Performance Computing. Amazon Web Services introduced HPC services last year. Also last year a Seattle startup focused on HPC was sold to EMC for $2.25 billion. Today that company, Isilon, has more than 500 employees in Pioneer Square and is adding hundreds more.

As the industry gets bigger, it also gets wider. The SC’11 organizers have an initiative called “Broader Engagement” to address the missing middle. These are the companies and technical professionals on the margins of supercomputing. Organizations that could benefit from supercomputing but just don’t know it.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (Illinois) has a whole department dedicated to recruiting the missing middle. The National Council on Competitiveness exists exclusively to promote supercomputing and address the missing middle.

Why the recruiting effort? Supercomputing spurs innovation. The colorful example is a snack food producer that used supercomputing to model the aerodynamics of potato chips on a high speed conveyer to successfully speed production. Or, more seriously, the supercomputers used to sift the mountains of data produced by the human genome project.

Supercomputing is a $5.5 billion market that is growing as demand increases. What’s going on? The economics of silicon density have met the opportunities of big data. The transformation happened recently for life sciences, video, animation and geo-seismic industries, among others. The new driver is big data and powerful analytics to discover patterns and opportunities in mobile, machine and social media-generated data. That may be why Facebook is exhibiting at Supercomputing this year. I’m sure my Facebook status updates are a researcher’s treasure trove.

New companies are emerging to take advantage of the shift to big data analytics. Seattle’s Space Curve is building the next big data analytics platform using real time geodesic indexing. Social and location-based technologies are also using HPC systems to index massive data sets with speed and volume previously unheard of. The region’s leadership in mobile development (Windows Phone 7, T Mobile), search (Bing) and ecommerce (Amazon, Real) fuel demand for new big data analytics solutions.

I didn’t see these changes coming. When Amazon introduced Web Services in 2002 cloud was still a meteorological term. The massive data sets coming out of Bing, Pop Cap Games and T-Mobile only existed at NASA and the CIA 20 years ago. Who will plow this data and for what benefit?

Those discussions are happening at 7th Avenue and Pike Street this week. Supercomputing has taken off in Seattle in a big way. And given the region’s leadership role in the industry, the future of big data analytics may take off here as well. The conference is good news for local leaders looking for the latest innovations, but bad news if they’re looking for cheesecake.

Paul Owen is founder and CEO of Owen Media, a high tech PR firm that serves the enterprise IT, HPC, cloud and new energy markets. 

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