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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

If the first exascale machine arrives offshore, there's a good chance it will immediately be labeled in the U.S. as a "stunt machine," capable of setting a new Linpack benchmark, but not very useful for running science applications. The U.S. goal is to build an exascale system that can not only run science applications, but can also deliver marketable technologies to boost the U.S. tech industry.

Countries will still want to brag that they achieved exascale first, but unlike the Cold War that helped to give rise to Sputnik, there is "strong collaboration" with Japan and the European Union on exascale software development, and efforts with China are improving, said William Harrod, research division director for the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Scientific Computing Research program, at a conference forum Wednesday.

The strong collaboration on software doesn't replace national competitive strategies, or the goals of Europe and China, in particular, to use the push to exascale to improve their own tech industries.

The U.S. appears set to move at its own pace, aware of what's going on globally but blind to it at the same time, but this could be dangerous. Take the NOAA.

Cliff Mass, a professor of meteorology at the University of Washington, wrote on his blog last month that the U.S. is "rapidly falling behind leading weather prediction centers around the world" because it has yet to catch up in computational capability to Europe.

That criticism followed the $128 million purchase of a 16-petaflop Cray supercomputer by the U.K.'s Met Office, its meteorological agency.

NOAA recently put into production two 213 teraflop systems.

Was the moon landing just a stunt? Some say it was, according to Rick Stevens, associate laboratory director at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, at a forum here on exascale. Others argued that it was our "greatest achievement."

Whatever the moon landing was, it made a point.


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