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Five reasons the U.S. tech lead is in danger

While Congress focuses on budget cutting, other nations are figuring out what to spend on the next computing platforms

November 23, 2011 06:55 AM ET

Computerworld - There is a worldwide race to build the next generation of supercomputers, but U.S. efforts have stalled.

China and Europe, in particular, are moving ahead with programs. And Japan is increasingly picking up the pace.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, has yet to put in place a plan for achieving exascale computing.

Exascale programs aren't just about building supercomputers.

Development of exascale platforms will also seed new processor, storage and networking technologies. Breakthroughs in these areas in other countries may give rise to new challenges to U.S. tech dominance.

Why are exascale systems important?

The systems, which would be capable of achieving 1 quintillion (or 1 million trillion) floating point operations per second -- one thousand times more powerful than a petaflop system -- could be capable of solving the world's greatest scientific problems. If the U.S. falls behind, the research would increasingly be done in other countries.

In sum, the world has awakened to need of high performance computing. The U.S., for now, is dozing.

Five reasons that the U.S. lead in high performance computing is in danger follow.

1: The U.S. doesn't have an exascale plan.

An exascale development project wold cost the U.S. billions. Europe has estimated that its own exascale effort will cost $3.5 billion Euros ($4.724 billion U.S.) over ten years.

China is putting untold amounts of money into its effort.

In 2008, China had 15 systems represented on the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful systems. In the latest list, released this month, 74 Chinese-built systems, or 14.8% of the world's total, appeared.

In 2010, a China-built system topped the list. Japan now owns the top stop on the supercomputing list as its government shows renewed interest in high performance computing development.

The U.S. continues to fund big projects such as IBM's planned 20 petaflop computer for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that's due next year. That system may put the U.S. back in first place on the Top 500 list.

But despite what's going on in Europe and China, the U.S. has yet to set a budget for exascale development.

The Department of Energy is due to deliver to Congress no later than Feb. 10 the timetable and the costs of building an exascale system. The delivery couldn't come at a worse time, particularly with this week's failure of the Congressional Super Committee to come to a budget agreement, which will trigger mandated cuts.

U.S. scientists have been warning for a year that Europe and China are on a faster exascale development path.

Alex Ramirez
Alex Ramirez, computer architecture research manager, Barcelona Supercomputing Center, shows an ARM and Nvidia processor card.

"The EU effort is more organized at this stage with respect to exascale with strong backing from the European Commission," said Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at University of Tennessee, a distinguished research staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as an organizer of the Top 500 list.

"The Europeans see this as an opportunity to work together on a software stack and be competitive on the world stage," Dongarra said. "The bottom line is that the US appears stalled and the EU, China, and Japan are gearing up for the next generation."

2: It's mistakenly assumed the U.S. will win the exascale race.

Although China's supercomputing development effort gets much attention, the Europeans are focused on developing a technology infrastructure to rival the U.S.



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