Why the US lead in technology is under threat

There is a worldwide race to build the next generation of supercomputers, but US efforts have stalled.


There is a worldwide race to build the next generation of supercomputers, but US efforts have stalled. China and Europe, in particular, are moving ahead with programs. And Japan is increasingly picking up the pace.

The US government, meanwhile, has yet to put in place a plan for achieving exascale computing.

Exascale programs aren't just about building supercomputers. Development of exascale platforms will also seed new processor, storage and networking technologies. Breakthroughs in these areas in other countries may give rise to new challenges to US tech dominance.

The systems, which would be capable of achieving 1 quintillion (or 1 million trillion) floating point operations per second, one thousand times more powerful than a petaflop system, could be capable of solving the world's greatest scientific problems.

If the US falls behind, the research would increasingly be done in other countries. In sum, the world has awakened to need of high performance computing. The US, for now, is dozing.

Five reasons that the US lead in high performance computing is in danger follow:

The US doesn't have an exascale plan

An exascale development project wold cost the US billions. Europe has estimated that its own exascale effort will cost $3.5 billion Euros (£3 billion) over ten years. China is putting untold amounts of money into its effort.

In 2008, China had 15 systems represented on the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful systems. In the latest list, released this month, 74 Chinese-built systems, or 14.8% of the world's total, appeared. In 2010, a China-built system topped the list. Japan now owns the top stop on the supercomputing list as its government shows renewed interest in high performance computing development.

The US continues to fund big projects such as IBM's planned 20 petaflop computer for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that's due next year. That system may put the US back in first place on the Top 500 list.

But despite what's going on in Europe and China, America has yet to set a budget for exascale development.

The Department of Energy is shortly due to deliver the timetable and the costs of building an exascale system to Congress. The delivery couldn't come at a worse time, particularly with this week's failure of the Congressional Super Committee to come to a budget agreement, which will trigger mandated cuts.

US scientists have been warning for a year that Europe and China are on a faster exascale development path. Alex Ramirez, computer architecture research manager, Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, shows an ARM and Nvidia processor card.

"The EU effort is more organised at this stage with respect to exascale with strong backing from the European Commission," said Jack Dongarra, a professor of computer science at University of Tennessee, a distinguished research staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as an organiser of the Top 500 list.

"The Europeans see this as an opportunity to work together on a software stack and be competitive on the world stage," Dongarra said. "The bottom line is that the US appears stalled and the EU, China and Japan are gearing up for the next generation."

It's mistakenly assumed the US will win the exascale race

Although China's supercomputing development effort gets much attention, the Europeans are focused on developing a technology infrastructure to rival the US.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 16.8 mile circular tunnel on the French and Swiss borders, is establishing Europe as the world's centre for high energy physics research. This may mean that physicists who once wanted to work in the US may find Europe more advantageous. That may help seed the creation of new industries in Europe.

The US once had plans to build a 54-mile supercollider tunnel in Texas, but Congress pulled the funding and abandoned the partially constructed project after its projected cost increased from about $5 billion in the late 1980s to $11 billion in 1993.

European nations are also acting jointly in building their own GPS system, Galileo. It's a $20 billion project.

LHC and Galileo illustrate that European nations are willing to pool resources and work together on technology. They see a similar opportunity in exascale, especially in software development.

"The US, Europe, China and Japan all have the potential to realise the first exascale system," concluded the European Exascale Software Initiative, the group that's leading Europe's effort, in a report last month.

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