Feds grapple with computer timesharing

Although the Energy Department'in the spirit of global corporate competitiveness'seems willing to let U.S. companies use its new Oak Ridge National Laboratory supercomputer for large jobs, corporate America remains a bit wary, not wanting to make trade information public.

A new survey sponsored by the Defense Advanced Projects Agency shows that corporations are interested in using high performance computers, though many can not afford the latest models.

The survey, commissioned by the Council on Competitiveness, was done by the International Data Corp., of Framingham, Mass.

IDC interviewed representatives of 33 large U.S. companies. The council wanted to learn how much corporations make use of'and could make use of'high performance computers. The Council on Competitiveness is a nonprofit organization focused on fostering U.S. economic competitiveness and sees high performance computing as a possible edge for U.S. companies.

The survey found that all but one company valued high performance computing as 'indispensable' in maintaining competitiveness. However, the survey also found that some companies don't have the budget for the fastest computers. In many cases, companies could not perform advanced product research and prototyping due to the lack of sufficient in-house computational resources.

As a result, they expressed 'some interest' in running large jobs on remote computers, according to survey co-author Earl Joseph, IDC research vice president of the high-performance systems program. Joseph presented the results of the survey at the High Performance Computing conference in Washington.

At least one agency wants to lend a few spare cycles to the cause.

During the conference, Everet Beckner, the Energy Department's deputy administrator for defense programs, said the department is open to the idea of allowing corporations to use its new supercomputer. The Energy Department has commissioned the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of Oak Ridge, Tenn., to start developing a $200 million computer with a peak capability of over 250T'which might make it in the world's most powerful computer when complete.

'It's yet to be worked out, but it is certainly something that we are willing to work with industry to find ways of doing,' Beckner said.

Ray Orbach, director of the Energy Department's Office of Science, said in an earlier press conference that the Oak Ridge computer will be made available for nonclassified research outside the Energy Department, either by academic institutions or by private companies. The laboratory will review potential jobs and pick those with the most merit. Use of the supercomputer will be free as long as the results are published in a public forum, Orbach said.

But that is the catch, say companies. Those surveyed expressed concern over security and intellectual property rights, Beckner said. In particular, companies did not want to publish results of data sets run on federal computers. A company carrying out early prototype work would not want a competitor to use those results.

In contrast, Japanese companies may use Japan's 36T Earth Simulator computer, considered to be the most powerful unclassified computer now in operation, without disclosing results, Joseph said.

Nonetheless, members of the Council on Competitiveness agreed that allowing U.S. companies to use the Energy Department's new computer would help those companies thrive in the global marketplace.

'In many cases industry can not afford to purchase leading-edge machines,' said Suzy Tichenor, a vice president of the council. 'So getting access to these cutting-edge machines can be tremendously helpful to our companies.'

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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