Much ado is made about the United States’ imperative to maintain the strongest military, but in today’s technology-driven world, American exceptionalism in HPC (high-performance computing) may be just as important to the country’s long-term future.
HPC is the centerpiece of modern competitiveness, as essential to U.S. national security as it is to scientific discovery and commercial innovation. In particular, HPC is a critical enabler of new product design and development, serving as the platform for robust simulation studies that help manufacturers virtually validate and test ideas to come up with optimized solutions that aren’t feasible or cost-effective with traditional physical prototyping methods. America’s ability to maintain its leadership position developing HPC technology, including making it readily accessible to both large corporations and small-to-mid-size businesses, is a critical objective — and one that should not be taken lightly.
A recent report released by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), “The Vital Importance of High-Performance Computing to U.S. Competitiveness,” raised concerns about an eroding U.S. HPC position as the race intensifies and countries like China, Japan and Russia amplify their own HPC development efforts. While the ranking of the world’s fastest supercomputers has remained static for the last few years, the deck was shuffled upon the November 2015 launch of China’s Tianhe-2, which boasts a peak theoretical performance speed of 54.9 petaflops. The Tianhe-2 is twice as fast as the second fastest supercomputer — the United States’ Titan — that operates at a maximum speed of 27.1 petaflops from its home base at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
As it that wasn’t alarming enough, China is said to be furiously at work to best its own record, planning to release of a pair of 100-petaflop-capable supercomputers this year. The U.S. is by no means standing still. The Department of Energy (DOE) contracted with IBM and NVIDIA to launch two 150-petaflop supercomputers, but their entry is not expected until the 2017-2018 timeframe. And the real long-term race, according to the ITIF report, will come down to which country develops the first “exaflop” HPC platform, a milestone being tackled not just by the United States, but by the European Union, China and Japan — all with a 2020 target date.
Time to Act on HPC
Stephen Ezell, vice president of Global Innovation Policy at ITIF and one of the lead authors of the report, says we’re at an inflection point with HPC. “This is a technology where global leadership is fiercely contested,” he notes. “While the U.S. position remains strong, if we don’t commit ourselves to making continuing investments, we will rapidly continue to lose ground.”
Maintaining our leadership in producing and using HPC technology is equally important. Manufacturing HPC equipment provides a robust source of employment, exports and economic growth. Plus, there are no guarantees that U.S. companies and research entities could get access to state-of-the-art HPC technology if it was primarily manufactured in another country, Ezell says. Finally, HPC systems are often the result of co-design partnerships between vendors and customers, a relationship that is critical to advancing the frontier of HPC systems, he contends.
While the situation is by no means dire, the ITIF has made a credible case, both for the importance of HPC for competitive advantage and for why the U.S. should work to maintain its lead. The Obama administration seems to get the message and has taken some steps in the right direction. The National Strategic Computing Initiative, launched in July 2015 by way of executive order, is a federally funded R&D effort intended to keep the U.S. at the forefront of HPC development, including building exaflop supercomputers, making HPC resources more available to the public and private sector, and helping HPC application developers be more productive.
There are also efforts underway to bring HPC resources to smaller companies. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) has created a dozen centers across the United States to help connect manufacturers with HPC resources, and the Ohio Supercomputer Center’s AweSim program, a result of a partnership between the OSC and simulation experts, also assists SMEs with simulation-driven design.
Beyond those initiatives, the ITIF report recommends we:
• hold hearings on the NSCI and the intensifying race for global HPC leadership to keep the issue front and center;
• authorize and appropriate NSCI funding levels;
• reform export control regulations to match the reality of current HPC systems;
• continue work on technology transfer and commercialization activities at the country’s national labs; and
• emphasize HPC in federal worker training programs and in relevant Manufacturing Extension Partnerships.