President Obama Calls for Massive Boost in Power of Supercomputers

7:07 pm ET Aug 10, 2015

President Obama Calls for Massive Boost in Power of Supercomputers


President Barack Obama issued an executive order at the end of July calling for the creation of a National Strategic Computing Initiative, with the goal of building a supercomputer that can deliver 100 times the performance of current 10 petaflop systems and improving technologies used for data analytics. The order also calls for bettering the high-performance computing ecosystem and ensuring that “the benefits of the research and development advances are … shared between the United States Government and industrial and academic sectors.”

The order follows a long line of public initiatives in which the government has been a catalyst for major technological change. The rise of the early space program and the formation of the Internet in the 1960s and 1970s are the most obvious examples of this public-private role. More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has kicked-started research in self-driving vehicles and other kinds of robotics. The role of government in the tech sector has a long and complex history, but it’s often at its best when it is playing the role of catalyst, mustering public assets and will to solve large problems.

Now, as some experts question whether the pace of technological innovation is slowing, a government challenge designed to radically boost computing power has the potential to open the way for big leaps in technological capability. History suggests there is some reason for optimism, although balancing the needs of business and government can be difficult.

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency laid the groundwork for the modern Internet with ARPANET in the 1960s. Supercomputing itself got its start in the U.S. national laboratories with help from technology companies, according to a 2014 report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Technology key to hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, also grew with the help of U.S. research efforts, the report said. Some of that has come out of U.S. investment in basic research, seen as a key driver of broader economic competitiveness.

Close collaboration between the government, industry and academia is a guiding principle of the executive order. Developing technology alongside industry partners is a critical part of the executive order. But it will be a challenge to create technology that meets the extreme needs of the government while also being useful to industry at large, said Bob Sorensen, an analyst with IDC who covers high-performance computing. “It’s going to take a lot of thought to make sure they don’t mandate something that has no applicability in the marketplace.”

Juggling the needs of government and industry sometimes creates a tension between the two parties, said Dave Turek, vice president for high performance computing at International Business Machines Corp. “There’s always a balancing point: how do you begin to shape your design and architecture for the extreme needs of the government versus the benefits that would accrue into the industrial space,” he said. Mr. Turek is responsible for the company’s overall high performance computing strategy.

He said these kinds of questions are generally ironed out before government agencies put out requests for proposals, when companies discuss with those agencies how they plan to use the technology for their conventional businesses. IBM is one of the companies working with the U.S. government on supercomputers. Other companies often competing in the supercomputing arena include Cray Inc. and Intel Corp.

The order also calls for a technological path forward for the “post- Moore’s Law era,” when semiconductor technology can no longer plow meaningfully greater processing power into smaller and smaller machines at the same pace it has maintained in recent decades. While chipmakers have said they can keep shrinking chips for a while longer, it’s becoming more expensive and fewer companies may want to shoulder the task. A way forward may just have to come from a public-private partnership.

The diverse range of technologies underlying supercomputers, including networking and data analytics tools, increases the opportunity to impact broader industries. Simultaneous research and development going into all of those separate components could produce unexpected commercial applications along the way, Mr. Turek said.

There order comes amid considerable competition from China, which currently runs the world’s fastest supercomputer. Last week, China said it would curb exports of advanced drones and supercomputers as part of a continued push to control technology linked to national security, the WSJ reported. In April 2015, the U.S. blocked technology exports to Chinese technical centers associated with the Tianhe-2, China’s supercomputer.

Silicon Valley companies might play a role in the process, Mr. Sorensen said, but many lack the resources necessary to respond to a bid request and establish relationships with national laboratories. Still, he added, “raising the entrepreneurial spirit of U.S. R&D” could go a long way toward ensuring economic competitiveness.


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