Supercomputing needs to deliver 'real-life value,' senator says

Political support for exascale, but no money just yet

At the Argonne National Lab on Monday, a dedication ceremony was held for the Mira supercomputer, where it was duly noted that it is the world's fifth-fastest system. You cannot mention the world's fifth-fastest system without noting the world's number one system, which is in China.

That was the case when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who attended the ceremony, cut the ribbon to dedicate Mira, an IBM Blue Gene/Q system capable of 10 petaflops, or 10 quadrillion calculations per second. The world's fastest system, the Tianhe-2 in China, according to the Top 500 list, has been benchmarked at nearly 34 petaflops.

China, Europe and Japan, and perhaps Russia, are all working with the goal of developing exascale systems, or machines of 1,000 petaflops. There is a global race to achieve exascale, and Durbin is co-sponsoring legislation in the U.S Senate to spend $580 million on exascale development over the next three years.

There's a similar bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) The House bill doesn't include a specific exascale funding recommendation, but one source has said an annual appropriation of $200 million or more will be sought.

The Senate bill was introduced in April and the House bill just last month. Both are likely months from any action, if they make it to a vote. Illinois is home to Argonne, a major beneficiary of HPC (high performance computing) investment.

To win support, Durbin seemed to suggest that HPC systems are going to have to deliver results that will get notice, lest lawmakers lose the will to make the investments.

Of Mira, Durbin said, "we need to translate this computer into real life value," and "we need to incentivize those in public life who are willing to invest in the research."

Rick Stevens, the associate laboratory director at Argonne, outlined some of the research initiatives on Mira, which includes working with Caterpillar, the farming equipment manufacturer, to design a more efficient engine.

Mira is also being used to help design better concrete with a reduced carbon footprint. For every ton of concrete produced, one ton of carbon dioxide is also produced, Stevens said.

Another major initiative, which is getting a "large allocation" of compute time, is to improve batteries, particularly those used in automobiles, said Stevens.

The laboratory was tasked in November by the U.S. Department of Energy, which operates the lab, to spearhead development of energy storage technologies that are five times more powerful and five times cheaper than today's within five years.

Durbin didn't talk Monday about the prospects of his bill and focused instead on the immediate problem of sequestration, the automatic government-wide spending cuts.

Durbin, who was speaking before HPC researchers at Argonne, said cutbacks may prompt some researchers to question their commitment to government-funded basic research.

Those researchers may ask, "'I'm going to give my life to this so some politicians in Washington can decide next year that they aren't going to fund my project?'" Durbin said. It may prompt researchers to move on to other work, and "that's what troubles me."

Other countries, said Durbin, are "dreaming of getting ahead of the U.S. when it comes to basic research."

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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

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