Obama turns attention to supercomputing

But will the federal budget, due out soon, live up to expectations set in State of the Union?

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech was so technology-focused that it buoyed expectations that U.S. investment in IT, particularly supercomputing, will survive his plan to freeze domestic spending for five years.

In his speech Tuesday, Obama made it clear that the government's role is to provide "cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support they need." To make his case for federal investment, he cited a string of U.S. technological advances, including the Internet and GPS, that were developed with government support, and he discussed some current research, particularly projects involving alternative energy.

Obama also cited international competition in technology, particularly from China, which recently became home to the world's largest private solar research facility and the world's fastest computer.

Obama specifically mentioned supercomputing twice in his speech.

Peter Beckman, who is director of the Exascale Technology and Computing Institute and the Leadership Computing Facility at Argonne National Laboratory, said he was "were very excited about innovation, technology, science and energy being messages" in the State of the Union.

The president's characterization of the U.S. as "a nation of inventors and innovators," Beckman said, is "fantastic -- and that's how I see our work in computing."

How Obama's message will translate into dollars will be detailed in the federal budget, which is due early next month.

Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC, said there is a critical need for U.S. funding of high-end, high-performance computing.

"Other nations are investing heavily in building very large supercomputers because they know that they can help their economic competitiveness a lot and that they can help advance basic science and engineering," Joseph said.

Joseph said that supercomputing is becoming a base requirement for many industries, which are using new materials and processes "that will redefine the products we use."

China isn't just building one large supercomputer; "they are building out a vast new infrastructure of supercomputer centers to address both economic growth and scientific standing -- more than a dozen are under way already," he said.

The U.S. is spending on high-performance computing systems about $2.5 billion a year, according to IDC. That doesn't include money spent on buildings, staff, power and cooling and other related expenses. When all of those supporting costs are added, the actual U.S. investment may be four times the amount spent on the systems themselves, Joseph said.

He said the U.S. will have to increase its spending to $5 billion per year in five years if it is to stay competitive.

Joseph also sees a need for the creation of software development centers that can make hundreds of codes more scalable and useful to industries. The government tends to focus on scaling a small number of codes to run on its larger machines built for its national labs.

Obama's focus on technology was pervasive in the speech. He not only mentioned high-performance computing, he mentioned the Internet six times, the computer mouse, the need for ubiquitous high-speed broadband "and the importance of investing in information technology research to spur innovation," said Peter Harsha, the Computing Research Association's director of government affairs.

"I think it's pretty clear that the administration understands how key retaining our leadership position in IT is for our continued competitiveness," Harsha said.

Christopher Willard, chief research officer at Intersect360 Research, a supercomputing market research and consulting firm, said, "There were very strong themes on education and technology, and by implication, what investment in those areas means for U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace, especially in relation to China, which is investing heavily in those areas."

Williard called the speech and the recent passage of the America Competes Reauthorization Act, which calls for more funding in basic research and investment in education, "positive signs for this administration's investment in supercomputing."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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 pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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