U.S. Risks Losing Edge in HPC, Supercomputing, Report Says

by Jeffrey Burt

Facing growing competition from China and other countries, the U.S. must take steps to accelerate its HPC efforts, according to the ITIF.

Last year, President Obama issued an executive order aimed at accelerating the development of high-performance computing systems in the United States.

The executive order created the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), an initiative to coordinate federal government efforts and those of public research institutions and the private sector to create a comprehensive, long-term strategy for ensuring the United States retains its six-decade lead in research and development of HPC systems.

Noting the importance of supercomputers in government, industry and academia, Obama wrote the country's momentum in high-performance computing (HPC) needed a "whole of government" approach that incorporates public and private efforts.

"Maximizing the benefits of HPC in the coming decades will require an effective national response to increasing demands for computing power, emerging technological challenges and opportunities, and growing economic dependency on and competition with other nations," the president wrote. "This national response will require a cohesive, strategic effort within the Federal Government and a close collaboration between the public and private sectors."

However, according to a recent report, the United States' lead in the space is not ensured, and that other regions and countries—in particular, China—are making concerted efforts to expand their capabilities in the design, development and manufacturing of supercomputers and the components that make up the systems.

The authors of the report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) stressed the importance to the United States of the HPC market—to everything from national security to economic development—and listed steps Congress must make to keep the country at the forefront of HPC and supercomputer development.

"Recognizing that both the development and use of high-performance computing are vital for countries' economic competitiveness and innovation potential, an increasing number of countries have made significant investments and implemented holistic strategies to position themselves at the forefront of the competition for global HPC leadership," the authors, Stephen Ezell and Robert Atkinson, wrote. "The report details how China, the European Union, Japan, and other nations have articulated national supercomputing strategies and announced significant investments in high-performance computing."

The United States needs to meet and exceed those efforts, the authors wrote.


"The United States currently leads in HPC adoption, deployment, and development, but its future leadership position is not guaranteed unless it makes sustained efforts and commitments to maintain a robust HPC ecosystem," they wrote.

The report describes HPC as the use of supercomputers and massively parallel processing technologies to address complex computational challenges, using such techniques as computer modeling, simulation and data analysis. It includes everything from computer hardware to algorithms and software running in a single system.

The United States continues to be the leader in the development of supercomputers, but the current trends in the industry are threatening. In the latest Top500 list of the world's fastest systems released in November 2015, the United States had 200 systems on the list. However, it was down from the 231 on the list released in July 2015 and was the lowest number for the country since the list was started in 1993. China, meanwhile, placed on 109 systems in November, almost three times the 37 the country had on the July list.

In addition, the Tianhe-2 supercomputer developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology was in the top slot for the sixth consecutive time, with a peak theoretical performance speed of 54.9 Petaflops (quadrillion floating point operations per second)—twice the speed of Titan, the second fastest system located at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The next Top500 list will be announced next month at the ISC 2016 show in Frankfurt, Germany.

There are other troubling trends, according to the ITIF report: Analysts expect China later this year to bring online two supercomputers capable of 100 Pflops of performance. By contrast, the DOE in 2014 signed up IBM and GPU vendor Nvidia to build two 150-Pflop supercomputers—Summit, for the Oak Ridge facility, and Sierra, for the Lawrence Livermore National Labs. However, those systems aren't due to go online until 2017 or 2018, and another supercomputer—Aurora—isn't due until 2019.

This is important, because the future of HPC is in developing exascale supercomputers—those that operate at 1,000 Pflops or more, according to the ITIF authors. The United States, China, Japan and the European Union are among the countries and regions in the race to develop the first of these exascale systems, which is scheduled to happen by 2020—though there are reports the timeline may be pushed back to 2023.

Here the United States has a continued advantage, the ITIF report said.

"Real national leadership in HPC comes from the combination of superfast systems, designed in a functionally operational, system-efficient, and cost-efficient manner, something at which the United States has long excelled compared with peer nations," the author said.

It will be important for the country to keep that advantage, they wrote. It would be risky for the United States to depend on foreign tech vendors to access leading HPC environments that no longer are produced in the country, and "U.S. industries and enterprises benefit through first-mover advantage by having quicker access and availability to leading-edge HPCs," the authors wrote. In addition, supercomputers are key advantages in exports, employment and economics.

Given this, the country needs to protect and extend its advantage, they wrote. The authors laid out steps Congress must take, including holding hearings on Obama's NSCI and the increasingly competitive global HPC space; authorize the funding necessary for NSCI over the coming years; and reform export control regulations to address the what's happening in the HPC space.

In addition, the current and future presidential administrations and their agencies and departments must make technology transfer and commercialization activities a priority for the country's network of national labs and emphasize HPC in federal work training programs. In addition, they should stress HPC in manufacturing extension partnership engagements and help small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) access high-performance computing.

This article was originally published on Sunday May 1st 2016
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