Once upon a time it was OK to be a reseller of high-performance computing offerings, shifting high-end kit to a customer on specification, for the right price, and on time. When we designed an HPC or server cluster, we knew our customers would have someone in-house, possibly a user, who would manage and maintain the system.
Many HPC integrations were in education institutions, with any number of budding computer engineers keen to fiddle, refine and maintain the system.
Today, most successful HPC resellers are both reseller and integrator. Customer-side HPC skills are withering away, so bespoke offerings have become more important.
And it is boom time for the design and integration of server clusters.
Government recently spent £156m on R&D, with a significant proportion in academia. Space, cooling, and power permitting, the ever-decreasing cost of hardware means even SMBs can now afford their own server cluster.
Our new breed of customers, specifically the users, do not want to fiddle with the system; they want a ready-made utility computing service so they can focus on their real business needs.
Larger systems - private clouds, if you will - today act as datacentres serving internal customers.
Full-time, experienced HPC managers are few and far between, and can be very expensive.
IT managers do not have the skills to manage a server cluster. We tend to find that IT departments abound with wall-to-wall Microsoft experts, who can maintain a "normal" IT infrastructure but not a Linux cluster.
A short-term lack of HPC skills is changing the face of the supercomputing market. In this new world, the channel shoulders even more responsibility.
We offer customers access to HPC power using either a cluster designed and integrated by us but managed in-house, a cluster designed and integrated by us and with a managed service by our team, a cluster hosted on our site but which a single customer can access securely and privately, or an on-demand service to support multiple customer computing requirement "bursts".
We are now resellers, integrators and service providers. This evolution has not been easy. You need to adopt the mentality that business is like a winding road, not a fixed railway track. Management must be adaptable, responding to customer demand and building services to match.
The sales function needs to change too. In HPC, the sales team is the point of a very long arrow and it needs huge technical resource behind it.
The sales team needs to understand what is possible for a customer, manage progress, and work with the rest of the team to analyse customer needs and ensure the customer gets the best solution - which might not always be an HPC cluster built on-site.
Vendor relationships need to be as strong as ever. Access to a wide ecosystem of partners heightens understanding of the technology in the market to select the best.
Managed services require project management capability to support customers and manage surprises - or at least minimise them. HPC is bleeding edge and surprises can happen.
The team needs to quickly understand the what, why and how, as well as the solution, of any problem. A reseller needs project managers and trained engineers on a support desk. Skills also must be put where customers need them - onsite support can only be provided if local engineers exist.
We opened offices in Daresbury and Edinburgh to provide local support for two of our largest customers.
Cluster integrations need a Statement of Work and managed services and on-demand services require robust service-level agreements. We used ISO9001 as a starting framework and developed them further ourselves.
Use the industry as your guide. Get it right and it's an exciting time to be in the HPC market.
Julian Fielden is managing director of OCF
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