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Congress questions U.S. supercomputing efforts

By Grant Gross, IDG News Service
July 16, 2003 04:46 PM ET

IDG News Service - The U.S. is falling behind Japan in the area of supercomputing, as federal research agencies have shifted their focus toward grid computing in the past decade, according to witnesses at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

The result is that U.S. companies have less access to supercomputing resources because demand from the U.S. government has traditionally driven the supercomputing industry in the U.S., critics of the government's efforts in high-performance computing told the House Science Committee.

"The federal government cannot rely on fundamental economic forces to advance high-performance computing capability," said Vincent Scarafino, manager of numerically intensive computing at Ford Motor. "The federal government should help with the advancement of high-end processor design and other fundamental components necessary to develop well-balanced, highly capable machines. U.S. leadership is currently at risk."

The Science Committee hearing on the status of supercomputing in the U.S. turned into an argument over the relative merits of expensive stand-alone supercomputers vs. networked computing grids made up of cheaper commodity computers. Supercomputing, or high-performance computing, is the use of high-end computers on scientific, industrial, national defense, and other computing-intensive applications.

Grid, or parallel, computing, which is the use of many computers networked together to perform a specific task, has been useful to Ford for such experiments as vehicle safety analysis, Scarafino said, but parallel computing cannot be used to do all kinds of analysis. Supercomputers are needed to do such experiments as occupant injury analysis, he added.

Worried about the launch of Japan's Earth Simulator in March 2002, members of the U.S. House Science Committee called for more cooperation between federal agencies and a renewed U.S. government push for high-performance computing. The Earth Simulator is ranked as the world's fastest supercomputer, although the next five fastest supercomputers are in the U.S., according to the supercomputer list.

"Supercomputers help design our cars, predict our weather, and deepen our understanding of the natural forces that govern our lives," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) chairman of the committee. "So when we hear that the U.S. may be losing its lead in supercomputing, that Japan now has the fastest supercomputer, that the U.S. may be returning to a time when our top scientists didn't have access to the best machines, that our government may have too fragmented a supercomputing policy -- well, those issues are a red flag that should capture the attention of all of us."

But the launch of the Japanese Earth Simulator isn't entirely bad news for the U.S., said Raymond Orbach, director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. Instead, it shows that scientific research computations faster than 25 teraflops at sustained speeds is possible, he said.

"We think that the range of 25 to 50 teraflops opens up a whole new set of opportunities for scientists that have never been realized before," Orbach said. "So what we have, thanks to the Japanese now, is existing proof."

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