By Patrick Thibodeau Secretariat was famous for coming up from behind in a race to win, and the same may be true for the U.S. in the global push to build exascale technologies. Because for now, when it comes to delivering the needed funding to build these systems, the U.S. is just getting out of the gate.
The European Commission last week said it is doubling its investment in the push for exascale computing from [euro]630 million to [euro]1.2 billion (or the equivalent of $1.58 billion). The announcement comes even as European governments are imposing austerity measures to prevent defaults.
The Europeans announced the plan the same week the White House released its fiscal year 2013 budget, which envisions a third year of anemic funding to develop exascale technologies. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asked for nearly $91 million in funding for the efforts in the current fiscal year; it received $73.4 million. That was up from $28.2 million spent on exascale the previous year.
In the budget proposal delivered to Congress, the White House has asked for $89.5 million - although there's additional money for exascale tucked away in other DOE budgets as well as in defense budgets.
That level of investment, according to Earl Joseph, a high-performance computing (HPC) nalyst for IDC, is "peanuts" for a program that may require billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, China is moving ahead with its own plans and has the financial resources and human talent to make progress in exascale computing. The Europeans may be particularly worried about China.
"Their biggest threat is that China is just going to bury them," said Joseph, referring to Europe. "With this level of investment, it gives them a chance to hold their own and maybe get a little bit a head of the game."
Major parts of the U.S. investment will go to fundamental research leading to new types of processors, memory, operating systems and compilers -- research breakthroughs that could also be applied commercially, said Joseph.
IDC, which is owned by IDG, the parent company of Computerworld, has been advising European authorities on HPC. The research firm recommended that Europe focus on developing applications that can utilize exascale systems and put less emphasis on developing hardware. U.S.-based IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Intel, in particular, dominate HPC hardware system building.
The Europeans, as do the Chinese, see opportunity in the push for exascale, which involves building systems 1,000 times more powerful than anything running today, an order of magnitude that has occurred about every 10 years in HPC development. An exascale system will be able to reach 1 quintillion (or 1 million trillion) floating point operations per second.
But exascale systems "pose numerous hard challenges," said the European Commission (EC) in a report that accompanied its funding announcements. The challenges include 100-fold reduction in energy consumption along with development of new programming models. As Europe sees it, solving these challenges creates opportunity for Europe, China and others looking to take on U.S. HPC dominance.
"These challenges are the same for all actors in the field and cannot be met by mere extrapolation, but require radical innovation in many computing technologies," wrote the EC in its report. "This offers opportunities to industrial and academic players in the EU to reposition themselves in the field."
As for China, "the Chinese are very practical in this regard," said Joseph. "They are very interested in how they use their machines to make their industries stronger."
In announcing Europe's investment, Neelie Kroes, the European Commission vice president responsible for the effort, said in a statement that "high performance computing is a crucial enabler for European industry and for more jobs in Europe. We've got to invest smartly in this field, because we cannot afford to leave it to our competitors."
Addison Snell, CEO of Intersect360 Research, said "Europe gave us the Renaissance, and Europe could again become the world's nexus of scientific discovery."
But Snell also questioned whether Europe will be able to meet the commitment to fund exascale if its economic problems worsen.
In the U.S., there has been restlessness in the HPC community about the lack of a multi-year plan by the government to fund exascale research and development.
Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who also compiles the Top 500 supercomputing list, welcomed Europe's effort.
"Friendly competition helps to drive things forward," said Dongarra.
Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.