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U.S. Losing Lead in Supercomputing, User Says

By Gary Anthes
September 29, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - VINCENT F. SCARAFINO
Title: Manager of numerically intensive computing, Ford Motor Co.
Observation: Japan recently grabbed the supercomputer lead from the U.S. with its Earth Simulator for climate modeling. Operating at 36 trillion operations per second, it's the fastest supercomputer in the world.
Prediction: Without a resumption in federal support for supercomputer research and development, the U.S. will fall behind in many areas of science and engineering.

Several years ago, the federal government shifted its funding for high-performance computing from exotic architectures to clusters of commodity processors. The clusters are fine for some jobs, but not for the most demanding ones, says Ford supercomputer user Vincent F. Scarafino. He explained to Computerworld's Gary H. Anthes the potential consequences of the U.S. losing the supercomputer race to Japan.

Why worry about U.S. leadership in supercomputing? Why can't Ford just buy supercomputers from Japan if that country makes the best machines? Advanced supercomputers enable breakthroughs in leading-edge science. Access to these leading-edge supercomputers has, through the years, provided Ford with a competitive advantage. If the U.S. loses leadership in this area, U.S. science and industry will lose early access to the fastest, most capable machines. The Japanese Earth Simulator has already shown this effect. Japanese interests are the primary ones being served. American scientists have limited access to the machine, but not at the same level as if it were an American resource available here.
The Earth Simulator is made up of NEC supercomputers that are a refinement over the last vector supercomputer we made here in the mid-1990s, the Cray T-90. Japanese auto companies are formidable competitors. We don't need to hand them yet another advantage.

What should the federal government do to boost U.S. supercomputing technology? Fund high-end processor design and supporting system components. The goal would be ultrafast processors with memory and I/O systems well matched to the computational speeds.

The government used to do just that, sponsoring development of high-end supercomputer architectures like the Cray vector machines. But now it seems to favor huge clusters of commodity microprocessors. Yes, in the mid-1990s they said that microprocessors were getting faster and faster, and we just need to put a whole bunch of them together and we've got a supercomputer. Well, it doesn't work quite that way. Microprocessors are fast at computing, but in order to run real difficult problems, they have to have real fast access to memory and be able to do I/O quickly. And memory subsystems are extremely expensive.
If you look at the very large machines made up of off-the-shelf components, they get about 5%

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