Fortissimo is arguably the world's most successful effort to introduce HPC to the "missing middle" SME population. With a combined 34 million euro in funding for the first two phases, 26 million euro of that from the European Union (EU), to date more than 215 partners have participated in 93 collaborations involving 20 countries. For Primeur Magazine, Steve Conway, senior vice president of research for Hyperion Research, interviewed Professor Mark Parsons, Director of EPCC, the University of Edinburgh's supercomputing centre, which has led the Fortissimo project through its first two phases.
Primeur Magazine:How have participating SMEs benefited from the Fortissimo project?
Mark Parsons:Access to these services has enabled SMEs to considerably lower their production costs, reduce the time needed to bring products onto the market, and improve their products and services. In some cases new business opportunities and new product lines evolved. In addition, Fortissimo 2 has concentrated in particular on helping SMEs carry out physically coupled modelling applications and Big Data analytics.
Primeur Magazine:Can you summarize the Fortissimo projects?
Mark Parsons:There have been two Fortissimo projects in succession during the past six years, funded through the EU Factories of the Future programme that was put in place in 2012 with a specific focus on manufacturing and SMEs and midcaps. We also included engineering. Fortissimo 2 ended in late 2018. The 93 projects lasted 12 to 18 months each and cost 200,000 euro on average.
Primeur Magazine:How did the model for Fortissimo work out?
Mark Parsons:The model was extremely successful. First, there was enormous demand. We could only fund about 15% of the proposals that came in, and all the funded proposals were from companies that would be using HPC for the first time and also engaging in a Commission research programme for the first time. There are more than 60 success stories on the Fortissimo website.
Primeur Magazine:What about outreach to attract SMEs? That's not an easy thing.
Mark Parsons:We had about 10 core partners that represented many of the European supercomputing suppliers and centres participating in Fortissimo. Most of the publicly funded centres held events and gave talks in their local areas to promote Fortissimo and the benefits of using HPC. That's what helped to generate the large number of proposals.
Primeur Magazine:How has the contracting worked?
Mark Parsons:The contract model changed based on our experience. In Fortissimo 1, everyone had to become a signatory to the Fortissimo project. That meant we had to negotiate with 122 partners and then enter all of that into the same contract. In Fortissimo 2, the model changed so that everyone became subcontractors to the University of Edinburgh. There was a separate contract for each SME project, and everyone involved in that project got the same contract with the same terms and conditions. The contracts were sent out with the RFP. If you weren't ready to accept the contract, you simply didn't bid. This worked really well. It was much simpler because there was no need to enter into negotiations.
Primeur Magazine:How was intellectual property treated?
Mark Parsons:IP was shared only with partners in the projects and wasn't shared beyond that unless the partners mutually agreed to do that.
Primeur Magazine:What about the model for funding project participants?
Mark Parsons:All projects used the same financial model that covered their direct costs plus 25% overhead. That applied both to project participants and EPCC. The idea was to compensate participants for their work but not enough for them to make a profit from participating in these research projects. We wanted their first experience with HPC to be a positive one.
Primeur Magazine:Is that a standard model for European projects?
Mark Parsons:Models used in Europe differ. For example, we're a member of ETP4HPC, which is essentially an industry association. Every year, ETP members are asked to report their total research income, and how much of this is from the public and private sectors. ETP management does a very good job but they're aware that universities are better at reporting these figures than companies are. That's because universities get credit for bringing in external funding, but for companies R&D is a cost centre so there's a tendency not to reports figures that managements may see as a burden on profits.
Primeur Magazine:Speaking of reports, how does Fortissimo report results?
Mark Parsons:We used to produce traditional annual reports that, frankly, were a bit monotonous to read. Now we publish a brochure on our website that makes all these exciting SME success stories available in one place.
Primeur Magazine:The website also features the Fortissimo Marketplace, which is the fairly large collection of SME suppliers participating in Fortissimo. Having an online storefront is an interesting concept. How has it been working out?
Mark Parsons:The marketplace is working very well at one level and not at another. What's worked really well is the collection of success stories. All of the HPC centres have seen increased business from SMEs buying time on their systems and wanting to do projects. For us at EPCC, that's been growing 10% a year. What's not working as well yet is people using the marketplace to find a service, buy it online and then use it. We're not seeing any substantial business yet through that route. We don't fully understand why this isn't working, but we assume part of the problem is that we and many other HPC centres can talk in depth with companies about the problems they want to apply HPC to, but the SME suppliers typically don't have the background for discussions like that.
Primeur Magazine:What's happening with phase 3 of Fortissimo?
Mark Parsons:There will be a call for proposals late this year and the budget will jump from 16 million euro to 20 million euro. That will allow for more research experiments through an expanded research programme, from only manufacturing in the past to any type of SME with a need to use HPC resources. The project direction is benefiting from EuroHPC, which is focused not just on big machines but on applications and software and growing the use of HPC capabilities.
Primeur Magazine:Will EPCC bid to lead Fortissimo 3?
Mark Parsons:Yes, we plan to bid. Fortissimo has been a very positive experience for EPCC and we'd like to continue in that role.
Primeur Magazine:Fortissimo's clearly been successful but there are so many SMEs who might benefit from HPC? Could Fortissimo be scaled up?
Mark Parsons:I did some back-of-envelope calculations. There are about two million SMEs in the manufacturing sector in Europe, but that includes bakeries and others who presumably don't need HPC. More realistically, the government of Scotland estimates about 1400 SMEs in Scotland could benefit from HPC and about 300 would be likely to make the move. Scaling the latter number to all of Europe yields about 90,000 SMEs and so far we've helped 93, or just over 1% of the European total. In my opinion, scaling up Fortissimo would require providing HPC on a professional, commercial basis so you could sell enough to become self-sustaining, rather than expecting funding to scale. One of the challenges to the commercial model is handling the time-intensive first project for each SME. It's possible to get a regional view of what can be done.
Primeur Magazine:Do you get help from the Scottish government?
Mark Parsons:I've been lucky that Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish economic development agency, understands the value of supercomputing and can do surveys that help me understand the market. They can do that better than we can. The European Commission's digital innovation hubs are a positive response to regional needs. One perennial issue is that companies need continuous support and governments seldom fund initiatives for more than four to five years. Governments need to take a longer-term view of economic development.