U.S. supercomputing lead rings Sputnik-like alarm for Russia

Russia's President says country's ranking 'very difficult' when compared with America's

Russia's launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered a crisis of confidence in the U.S. that helped drive the creation of a space program. Now, Russia is comparing the U.S.'s achievements in supercomputing with theirs, and they don't like what they see.

In a speech on Tuesday, Russia's President, Dmitry Medvedev, criticized his country's IT industry almost to the point of sarcasm for failing to develop supercomputing technology, and urged a dramatic change in Russia's use of high-performance computing.

Medvedev, at the opening address of a Security Council Meeting on Supercomputers in Moscow, told attendees that 476 out of the 500 supercomputers on the Top500 list were manufactured in the United States. "Therefore, in general, our situation is very difficult," he said.

Medvedev was clear about his blame for this gap.

"If we are talking seriously, a huge number of entrepreneurs, not to mention officials, do not know what supercomputers are: For them it is an exotic type of those machines that were created in the 1920s to catch up and overtake America," Medvedev said in remarks published on a government Web site.

"Today businesses and federal agencies do not manifest their interest in supercomputer technology," Medvedev said.

Although supercomputers are widely used in Western countries to, for instance, build aircraft, Medvedev said few aircraft in Russia have been built using supercomputers. Most of their design today is still being done on paper, he said, but "only a digital approach can have a breakthrough effect, lead to dramatic improvements in quality, and reduce the cost of the product."

Medvedev promised to invest in supercomputing technology, and warned that without it "our products will not be competitive or of interest to potential buyers." He outlined objectives that included organizing a system for training experts in Russian universities, developing specialized software and building grids that would allow multiple computers to share resources.

Russia is not without advantages in high-performance computing. The engineering and mathematical discipline that helped Russia build Sputnik continues today. Western companies have established research and development facilities in Russia to tap into the country's technical talent.

Russia has commercial development in high-performance computing. T-Platforms in Moscow is one such company that is now entering the European market.

Earl Joseph, a high-performance computing analyst at IDC, said T-Platforms is selling its systems as complete services that include the scientific and engineering needed to use the platforms. "It's the first company that we have seen that has done it on any major scale," Joseph said.

By bundling scientific and engineering help around systems built with commodity hardware, the firm is trying to capitalize on country's academic strength.

Steve Conway, also a high-performance computing analyst at IDC, said Russia had a strong base of scientists and engineers capable of using supercomputers, and said there has already been cooperation in the oil sector on their use.

"[Russians] certainly seem to know that supercomputers are very closely tied to innovation," Conway said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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