House signs off on supercomputing

A new supercomputing bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday resuscitates federal interest in information technology research and development but does not authorize new spending.

H.R. 28, the 'High-Performance Computing Revitalization Act of 2005,' which amends the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991, requires the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department to guarantee United States researchers and engineers access to supercomputers and names the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in charge of coordinating all federal efforts.

Last fall, Congress passed the Energy Department High-End Computing Revitalization Act, to establish a supercomputing research and development program within Energy. The bill authorized $50 million for fiscal 2005, $55 million for fiscal 2006 and $60 million for fiscal 2007. Unlike last year's bill, this legislation is broader in scope but contains no funding. Its requirements apply to all of the IT R&D programs in agencies under the Science Committee's jurisdiction, including NSF, NASA, Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

'High performance computers are central to maintaining U.S. leadership in many scientific fields. With House passage of this bill, American researchers are one step closer to gaining the tools they need to remain the world leader in the development and use of supercomputers. Our nation's scientific enterprise, and our economy, will be stronger for it,' stated Energy Subcommittee Chairman Judy Biggert (R-IL), who introduced the bill.

Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) spoke in strong support of H.R. 28 on the House floor, saying, 'This is very important legislation that deals with the competitiveness of the United States of America in the global marketplace. We are not going to be preeminent in the competitive world if we don't invest wisely and direct our resources in the proper way, because the competition is all over the place. It isn't one state against another. It's the United States against the world. Right now, we're ahead. That's the position I like. But when we look back, we see a lot of people following closely behind. That's why it's critically important that we do things like invest in high-performance computing so that we maintain our competitive edge.'

The legislation also calls for better software, standards and training ' in addition to hardware.

Organizations representing the research and development community, such as the Computing Research Association (CRA), hailed the House's passage of the bill.

Officials are most happy with "the idea that Congress is taking an interest again in its research and development efforts. Our biggest complaint with the bill is that there is no authorization for new funding. We're pretty underinvested in IT research and development overall,' said Peter Harsha, CRA's Government Affairs director.

CRA Chairman James D. Foley stated, 'The bill comes at an important time. . .Recent changes to the landscape for federal support of computing - most notably, the shift away from support of fundamental IT R&D at universities by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - have left gaps in the federal portfolio that threaten to constrain future innovation in IT.'

Meanwhile, vendors are pushing personal supercomputers as the next big thing in United States supercomputing. This week, Orion Multisystems announced it is shipping a 96-node cluster workstation that fits under a desk. One on-off switch powers the device, which is between the size of a trash can and a two-drawer file cabinet and plugs into a standard power outlet. Using parallelism, it quietly and compactly generates computations. No special air-conditioning or raised floors are necessary. Each node contains a processor, chipset and networking capability. The main node provides a DVD and hard drive.

Orion would not disclose customers but said private agencies that serve the Defense Department are using its 96-node systems.

And NASA officials are informally talking about using the under-the-desk unit for modeling.

'I wish I had one. I don't have the budget for it yet,' said Jim Lux, a senior member of the engineering staff at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Orion's tool costs around $100,000, according to the company. Lux designs communication systems and radar for spacecraft. 'I have similar things that are large, bulky. . .consume a lot of energy and make a lot of noise. I'd like to have one that is small and quiet and fits under the desk.'

Orion envisions a day where even school children will use personal supercomputers. 'This is part of a trend that's also shown by AMD and Intel's dual-core processors. We're taking the concept of supercomputing and removing all the complexities,' said Joshua Shane, Orion Multisystems marketing director.

Budget constraints have hurt agency supercomputer efforts at NASA and Energy. Last month, NASA officials said Ames Research Center will eliminate up to 25 percent of its employees in supercomputing and space exploration robotics. They expect 10 percent of the center's 70 supercomputing workers and 10 percent of 100 robotics workers to take the buyouts. Whether through buyouts, layoffs or other means, Ames officials ultimately expect to slash 15 to 20 positions in supercomputing and 20 to 25 jobs in robotics within the next year and a half.

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