August 2005
The Coming Era of Low Power, High-Performance Computing — Trends, Promises, and Challenges
Opinion Editorial
Fran Berman Director, San Diego Supercomputer Center; HPC Endowed Chair, UC San Diego


Recent articles in community publications have focused on the critical need for capable high performance computing (HPC) resources for the open academic community. Compelling reports from the National Research Council, PITAC, the National Science Board, and others point to our current diminished ability to provide adequate computational and data management support for U.S. researchers, and the impact of insufficient technology capacity and capability on the loss of U.S. competitiveness and leadership.

As stated compellingly and increasingly, adequate capability and capacity in HPC is necessary, but it is not sufficient for leadership and competitiveness in science and engineering. Beyond the gear, concrete and strategic goals are critical to achieve competitiveness in science and engineering.

What do we want to accomplish as a nation in science and engineering? Competitiveness for many is reduced to an HPC “arms race” — who has the top spots on the Top500 list? For others, competitiveness amounts to U.S. dominance in the science and engineering world, represented by the number of awards, prizes, and other recognitions for U.S. researchers. For still others, competitiveness is represented by what researchers and educators see as the diversion of a looming “perfect storm” — decreasing funding for science and engineering in the U.S., increasing outsourcing of people and ideas to Europe, Asia and elsewhere, and decreasing students graduating in the sciences and engineering.

For any definition of competitiveness, the means to the end is a serious application of the Gretzky Rule: “Skate to where the puck will be.” It is clear that we need concrete goals and a plan, timetable, and resources to achieve them. But what should our goals be? Which goals should have priority over others? How should we accomplish our goals? More funding is an easy answer, and indeed, nothing substantive can be done without resources. But leadership, concrete goals, and a strategic plan for achieving these goals ranks just as highly to ensure that funding is well spent and our efforts are successful.

So how can we apply the Gretzky rule to the going definitions of competitiveness?

The Gretzky Rule and Competitiveness in the HPC “Arms Race”

These days, competitiveness in high performance computing is commonly measured by ranking on the Top500 list.1 This approach is inadequate to really measure architectural innovation, robustness, or even performance on applications that do not resemble the Linpack benchmarks; however, it is an easy measure and it has been effective in making the case for competitiveness beyond the scientific community. The current top spot on the list is occupied by Livermore’s Blue Gene, however the emergence several years ago of the Japanese Earth Simulator (now at spot 4) provided a “wake up call” (Dongarra called it “computenik” in the New York Times) to the U.S.

The Earth Simulator provides a textbook application of the Gretzky Rule: Japan committed roughly 5 years and 500 million dollars to planning and executing the Earth Simulator, which stayed at the top spot on the Top500 list between June 2002 and June 2004 inclusive. Careful planning, investment, and commitment enabled the Earth Simulator to create an impact which is still being felt in the U.S. and Europe.

So what did we learn about competitiveness from the Earth Simulator? A concrete goal achieved by strategic planning, commitment, and resources over an appropriate timeframe made this a reality.

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Reference this article
Berman, F. "On Perfect Storms, Competitiveness, and the “Gretzky Rule”," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 3, August 2005. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2005/08/on-perfect-storms-competitiveness-and-the-gretzky-rule/

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