House signs off on supercomputing

The House wants to re-energize federal work in supercomputing, but lawmakers want it to happen without additional money.

A new supercomputing bill passed by the House this week is supposed to resuscitate federal interest in the field, but it would not authorize new funding. 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.

This legislation passed by the House this week is broader in scope than last year's bill, which pertained only to the Energy Department. Its requirements apply to all of the IT R&D programs in agencies under the Science Committee's jurisdiction, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"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," said the measure's original sponsor, Rep. Judy Biggert, (R-Ill.), chairwoman of the House Science Committee's Energy Subcommittee.

The leader of the House's science-related efforts described the bill as strengthening the nation's global position in technology. "When we look back, we see a lot of people following closely behind," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee. "That's why it's critically important that we do things like invest in high-performance computing so that we maintain our competitive edge."

Although the legislation doesn't provide any new funding, it asks 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. However, it should have included more money, said Peter Harsha, government affairs director for the association. "We're pretty underinvested in IT research and development overall," Harsha said.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's shift from fundamental, basic research to technology with more immediate applications has "left gaps in the federal portfolio that threaten to constrain future innovation in IT," said James D. Foley, CRA chairman.

Budget constraints have affected supercomputer workers in the federal government. Last month, NASA officials said Ames Research Center will eliminate up to 25 percent of its employees in supercomputing and space exploration robotics. Whether through buyouts, layoffs or other means, Ames officials ultimately expect to slash 15 to 20 positions in supercomputing within the next year and a half.

Some vendors are pushing so-called personal supercomputers as the next big thing in U.S. supercomputing.

Orion Multisystems this week announced it is shipping a 96-node cluster workstation that is larger than a trash can and smaller than a two-drawer file cabinet, and plugs into a standard power outlet. The device uses parallel processing, does not require special air conditioning or raised floors. Each node contains a processor, chipset and networking capability. The main node provides a DVD player and hard drive.

"We're taking the concept of supercomputing and removing all the complexities," said Joshua Shane, marketing director for Orion.

Orion would not disclose customers but said private agencies that serve the Defense Department are using the systems, which the company sells for about $100,000 each. NASA officials are informally talking about using the units for modeling.

"I wish I had one," said Jim Lux, a senior member of the engineering staff at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he 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," he said.

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