February 2005
Trends in High Performance Computing
Susan L Graham, University of California at Berkeley
Marc Snir, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Our report concludes that the U.S. government has unique supercomputing needs that will not be satisfied without government involvement. In this sense, producing custom supercomputers and supercomputing unique technologies is like producing cutting-edge weapon systems. However, there are essential differences: not only are custom supercomputers essential to our security, they can also accelerate many other research and engineering endeavors. Furthermore, custom supercomputers are much more closely related to commercially available products, such as clusters, then, say, military aircraft are to civilian aircraft. There is a significant reuse of commercial technologies in custom supercomputers and a continuous flow of invention from custom supercomputers to commodity systems. Finally, the development cycles are much shorter and the development costs are much lower.

This leads to the following overall recommendation:

Overall Recommendation: To meet the current and future needs of the United States, the government agencies that depend on supercomputing, together with the U.S. Congress, need to take primary responsibility for accelerating advances in supercomputing and ensuring that there are multiple strong domestic suppliers of both hardware and software.

To facilitate the government’s assumption of that responsibility, the committee makes eight recommendations.

Recommendation 1. To get the maximum leverage from the national effort, the government agencies that are the major users of supercomputing should be jointly responsible for the strength and continued evolution of the supercomputing infrastructure in the United States, from basic research to suppliers and deployed platforms. The Congress should provide adequate and sustained funding.

A small number of government agencies are the primary users of supercomputing. These agencies are also the major funders of supercomputing research. At present, those agencies include the Department of Energy (DOE), including its National Nuclear Security Administration and its Office of Science; the Department of Defense (DoD), including its National Security Agency (NSA); the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The increasing use of supercomputing in biomedical applications suggests that NIH should be added to the list. There is a significant overlap among the supercomputing needs of these agencies.

The model we envisage is not a loose coordination, where each agency informs the others of its plans, but an integrated effort based on a joint long term plan. This 5-10 year High End Computing (HEC) plan would be based on both the roadmap that is the subject of Recommendation 5 and the needs of the participating agencies. Included in the plan would be a clear delineation of the responsibilities of various agencies. Joint planning and coordination of acquisitions will reduce procurement overhead and provide more stability to vendors. Agencies that support research will coordinate their efforts to ensure adequate funding of research addressing major roadblocks, as described in Recommendation 6. A more integrated effort by a few agencies may fund industrial development. House and Senate appropriation committees would ensure that budgets passed into law are consistent with the HEC plan.

Recommendation 2. The government agencies that are the primary users of supercomputing should ensure domestic leadership in those technologies that are essential to meet national needs.

Since the broad market on its own will not satisfy some of the supercomputing needs, the government should ensure the continued availability of needed unique technologies. The U.S. government may want to restrict the export of some technologies, and thus may want these technologies to be produced in the U.S. More importantly, no other country is certain to produce these technologies. The United States needs to invest in supercomputing not in order to be ahead of other countries, but in order to have the tools needed to support critical agency missions in areas such as signals intelligence and weapon stewardship. These investments will also broadly benefit scientific research and the U.S. economy.

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Reference this article
Graham, S., Snir, M. "The NRC Report on the Future of Supercomputing," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1, February 2005. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2005/02/nrc-report/

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