Feds up the ante on supercomputing

Federal officials are showing a new fascination with high-performance computers. The use of supercomputers waned in the 1990s following a boom in the previous decade. But with recent announcements from NASA and Navy officials, the federal government is fueling a resurgence.

Last week, officials from the Naval Oceanographic Office announced that they purchased an IBM Corp. supercomputer to boost the Defense Department's problem-solving capabilities. Meanwhile, NASA officials are entering a partnership with Silicon Graphics Inc. and Intel Corp. at Ames Research Center to build a super fast machine as part of Project Columbia.

Supercomputers are coveted for their vast simulation capabilities, from predicting weather to simulating space missions. For example, DreamWorks SKG LLC used a supercomputer to improve the visual effects from the movie "Shrek" so that in its sequel, "Shrek II," human skin appears more translucent.

In June, Army officials announced that the Army Research and Development Command will use a giant cluster of Apple Computer Inc.'s G5 servers to build a supercomputer to study the aerodynamics of hypersonic flight.

"Both the government and private sector are seeing increasing value in supercomputers for a variety of applications," said Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Jim Danneskiold. Since the 1990s, "we've increasingly seen a move to clusters and the increasing use of commodity processors, which makes it more accessible so more people can use it," he said. "You're not as dependent on one-of-a-kind systems and software."

Energy Department officials awarded Oak Ridge National Laboratory a $25 million contract in May to build a supercomputer during the next five years that is expected to handle 50 teraflops -- or 50 trillion operations per second. It would be the world's fastest computer.

There also are stirrings in Congress. Lawmakers seem to be better understand the implications of supercomputers on global competitiveness, said Peter Harsha, director of government affairs at the Computing Research Association.

Last month, the House passed the Department of Energy High-End Computing Revitalization Act of 2004, which established a research and development program within DOE to develop more advanced computers. House officials also approved the High Performance Computing Revitalization Act of 2004, which seeks to recapture U.S. dominance in supercomputing by requiring the Energy Secretary to carry out an R&D program.

Supercomputing comes in cycles, and industry and government have reached a point where simulations and models are in demand, said Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness. "With the federal government taking a leadership role, we are in a very exciting time," she said.

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