Top scientist urges 'ambitious' U.S. exascale supercomputer plan

Peter Beckman, head of the DOE's new exascale institute, says international rivals are working hard to displace U.S. as No. 1

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Why is that? We are not producing enough high-quality science and technology Ph.D. students. When we open up a postdoc position for an expert in this particular computer science field, we have to look hard to find people. There is not an overflow of these people, it's a thin group.

I was at a workshop in Tennessee recently and a Ph.D. student gave a talk and afterward several of us and went up and asked, "Have you decided where you are going to go?" At lunch, he had three people courting him trying to get him to come work for them.

How many are there like you in the U.S. devoting quality time to exascale development? In terms of people working full time on the exascale problem, I would say there are handfuls at best.

What do you want to see happen in the next year to give you confidence that this is moving ahead? The budgets in Washington have to get straightened out to actually fund this exascale initiative. And then we have to work very quickly to find the hardware partners that are capable of responding and doing this in partnership with the co-design centers and the software.

Is there is competition with Europe, Asia? If you look at what's happening in China, there are countries that are realizing that building and educating in science and technology and engineering is what will make the difference with competitiveness 10 years from now.

The countries who win that effort to build and educate in science and technology will dominate the competitive landscape in the future. If you look at what's happening in China, they are making their investments appropriately with that strategic goal in mind.

If you look at Europe and what they are doing with their supercomputer centers, in some sense, they've already put money where their mouth is with their plans for exascale. If you look at the top 10 supercomputers right now, half are in foreign countries. This is a new thing for us -- half of the top 10 machines are in other places.

With this competition, is the timing good to get money for exascale? It may be good. However, we seem to always be a reactive country, and it would have been better to not be in this situation than to have to react to it. But I'll take reacting.

What we really need is to build and continue to maintain the expertise of designing and educating and bringing that whole package together. The reason, in some sense, I'm not too focused on the purchase part is that any country can buy [a supercomputer].

The question is, who designed the technology, software and the applications? Because that's the place where it matters to science and technology engineering in the U.S. Right now, we're still in the lead, but our competitors are working hard.

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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