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Does being first in supercomputing still matter?

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 21, 2014
The goal of building an exascale system is compared to the U.S. effort to go to the moon

supermoon
Supermoon as seen from Jamnagar, Gujarat, India on June 23, 2013 Credit: Image credit: Flickr/SONARA ARNAV

NEW ORLEANS -- The European forecast of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was so far ahead of U.S. models in predicting the storm's path that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was called before Congress to explain how it happened.

NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan told lawmakers at a hearing last year that the Europeans "set a target and a policy of staying very close to the leading edge of computational capacity." That's in contrast to the U.S., which "falls further and further behind the cutting edge" and then follows it with a "big step forward," she said.

That's how things work in the U.S. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the "big step forward" for the U.S. was the moon landing in 1969. It crushed the competition.

Until recently, the U.S. has never faced global competition in high performance computing. Its leadership was assured in hardware and software development. But America's leadership, while still intact, is being challenged.

Supercomputers have become high priority investments in Europe, Japan and China, which operates the world's fastest system. The U.S. has set a goal of 2023 as its delivery date for an exascale system, and it may be taking a risky path with that amount of lead time.

President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "we choose to go to the moon" speech in 1962, and seven years later a man walked on the moon. The U.S. exascale goal is nine years away.

One thing that has given U.S. policymakers comfort is that many of the components that make up high-performance computing systems are American made. But this vendor landscape is about to see a major shakeup.

IBM's decision to sell its x86 server business to Lenovo will turn the China-based company, in short order, into one of the largest HPC vendors in the world, according to IDC.

"Lenovo may become the number two HPC provider literally by the end of this year," said Earl Joseph, an analyst at IDC. Hewlett-Packard is number one. If not in the second position, Lenovo will be close to it.

When Sputnik circled the Earth, it was clear that the Russians had made a significant accomplishment. But if the Europeans or China beat the U.S. to an exascale system, a 1,000 petaflop machine, it won't be readily clear that they have achieved true exascale performance.

The view here at the SC14, the major supercomputing conference, is that petaflops, as a benchmark measured by the performance of the Linpack calculation, will not matter with an exascale system.

 

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