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Even in a field defined by continuous breakthroughs, the achievement was a shocker: last March the Japanese government fired up a computer that soon proved to be the fastest in the world, in some cases outperforming the next-fastest computer by a factor of 10. The Earth Simulator, built by NEC, took four years to assemble and cost at least $350 million. It quickly delivered real-world scientific results in global-climate modeling, completing simulations that made other computers look crude. Scientists worldwide lined up for the limited amount of computer time available to researchers outside Japan. By June, just weeks after the machine hummed to life, three of the six finalists for the prestigious Gordon Bell awards in high-performance computing had run their projects on the Earth Simulator.

A smattering of articles last spring covered the news, quoting experts who compared the Earth Simulator to Sputnik-another instance of the United States’ having been severely outclassed in a critical technology. But outside the rarefied circles of high-end computing, the story soon died. U.S. computer vendors have been downplaying the achievement, dismissing the Earth Simulator as “old technology” or “too specialized” to be of much use, even insisting that it was a “publicity stunt.” “Give us $400 million to spend on a single computer, and we could build something just as fast,” says Peter Ungaro, vice president of high-performance computing at IBM.

“I love that,” scoffs Gordon Bell, designer of the first minicomputer for Digital Equipment and a luminary in high-performance computing. “How is IBM going to do it? Where is the technology? I want to bet $1,000 that in the next year, IBM can’t match the cost performance of the Earth Simulator on any system they have.” In fact, IBM recently won a Department of Energy contract to build a pair of machines designed to run at two to nine times the speed of the Earth Simulator, but the project will take until 2005 to complete. Like many of those involved in high-powered scientific computing, Bell believes that Japan’s achievement has exposed a gaping hole in the development of supercomputer systems in the United States-a hole that money alone can’t fill.

What happened that allowed NEC to take such a tremendous lead in computing power? Simply put, the Japanese government saw fit to subsidize the development of the world’s most expensive computer. The project’s goal was not to grab bragging rights from the United States, but to advance scientists’ understanding of the global climate by creating a machine that performs better modeling and weather simulations than ever before.

At the same time, U.S. government funding for research on high-end computing was waning in response to the deeply felt U.S. notion that supercomputer developers-like welfare moms-should take care of themselves rather than survive on government handouts. Compared with any other part of the computer market, the market for supercomputers is small and slow growing, so when public funding dried up, private investment in high-performance architectures dried up too. For the past decade or so, the U.S. emphasis in supercomputing has therefore been on linking clusters of commodity processors-those designed for everyday business applications-in what are known as massively parallel configurations. That approach is a stark contrast to the Japanese vision of specialized architectures developed solely for the high-performance market.

Granted, the commodity approach has gone far: at this writing two commodity machines, the twin Hewlett-Packard-built ASCI Q supercomputers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, rank as second-fastest in the world (as measured by Top500.org, a nonprofit analysis group). The idea of harnessing many low-end processors to do complicated tasks has captured the public imagination as well, with projects such as SETI@home, which enlists the desktop computers of more than four million volunteers to scan radio telescope data for patterns indicative of alien intelligence. Beowulf clusters, which use a method developed in 1994 for linking PCs together to maximize their processing power, have made it even easier to reach high-performance levels with relatively low capital investment. Without question, the commodity approach has proved itself for many applications that at one time ran on specialized “big iron.”

But in spite of these gains, the United States has fallen painfully short in the very field where computing muscle matters most and where the nation has the most to gain: in simulating such complex systems as weather on the macroscopic end and protein folding on the microscopic. This simulation capability is increasingly vital for the advancement of basic science, as well as for national security.

Making the private sector pay for this capability is “like the defense industry’s saying nuclear submarines have to have some sort of commercial spinoff,” says Horst Simon, director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Oakland, CA, home to the 12th-fastest computer. “We’ve embarked on a direction in the United States that is not going to work.”

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