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July 28, 2006

Senate Subcommittee Hears Testimony on HPC

by Tiffany Trader

On July 19, 2006 the Senate Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness listened to testimony from expert witnesses on the subject of high performance computing in the context of national competitiveness. The hearing was presided over by Subcommittee Chairman John Ensign (R-NV). Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is the minority lead on the committee.

This hearing has the potential to generate interest in companion Senate legislation to the High Performance Computing Revitalization Act (HR.28) passed by Congress in April 2005, which Cantwell has called “a good framework to start with.”

The witnesses shared their diverse experience to create a varied portrait of the state of high performance computing. What follows is an outline of each of the contributor's main points:

Dr. Simon Szykman, Director, National Coordination Office for Networking and Information Technology Research and Development

Dr. Szykman affirmed the importance of federal funding and interagency coordination with regard to high performance computing in the context of global competitiveness and progress. He stated that over the past few years, high performance computing has become more of a priority in the Federal R&D portfolio. Nowhere is that better documented than in the funding for the NITRD Program, which in five years has seen a budget increase of over 65 percent with a budget request of over $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2007.

He highlighted several examples that have come as a result of interagency collaboration, namely the DARPA HPCS program, the High-End Computing University Research Activity (HEC-URA) program and the development of benchmarks, performance metrics and measurement tools. He also discussed issues of innovation and competitiveness in the global market that came about in March 2002 when Japan's Earth Simulator became the world's fastest supercomputer. Szykman downplayed the occurrence, saying that the Japanese machine now holds sixth place, U.S. vendors are the dominant suppliers of supercomputing systems, and even foreign systems rely overwhelmingly on U.S. technologies.

Szykman went on to say, “The fact that the U.S. currently holds the title of world's fastest supercomputer does not herald a new era in U.S. leadership in high performance computing any more than the loss of the number one position implied a loss of leadership. High performance computing has been — and will continue to be — a cornerstone in the government's networking and information technology R&D portfolio. The clearest demonstration of progress over the past four years, however, should not be viewed in terms of the raw speed of the world's fastest machine, but rather in the context of the growing focus on domestic high performance computing policy, the unprecedented interagency coordination and collaboration on technical planning and implementation taking place within the government research community, and the increasingly cooperative ties between the Government research community and the private sector.”

Dr. Irving Wladasky-Berger, Vice President, Technical Strategy and Innovation at IBM

Dr. Wladasky-Berger discussed advancements in supercomputing and its key applications and outlined a strategy for success long-term success. He listed several key achievements, among them IBM's claim to the three fastest supercomputers: Blue Gene/L, Blue Gene/W and ASC Purple. 

Wladasky-Berger explained how supercomputers enable discoveries and advancements that would not otherwise be possible, citing the discovery of “docking sites” for new drugs and simulations that allow scientists to better understand the earth's climate. He went on to say that while technology, architecture and software are important, the real value of supercomputing to society is in its application in areas as diverse as defense and national security, science, weather/climate, engineering, energy, bioinformatics/biology, health care, business and learning.

From each discipline, Wladasky-Berger provided a myriad of examples. Here are just a few instances. Blue Gene/L conducted materials science simulations critical to national security. Scientists at TJ Watson Research Center are using supercomputers to study “junk DNA” to better understand cell regulation and species evolution. And automobile companies are using supercomputer simulations to improve the safety and fuel-efficiency while reducing costs.

In conclusion, Wladasky-Berger urged government support: “The federal government has significant influence in setting the agenda for basic research and in turn the use of high performance computing in pursuit of innovation and competitiveness. Clear direction and consistent funding will prompt industry and academia to invest as well, and in partnership we can address many of the serious challenges that face our nation. In the process, we will expand and deepen our knowledge of much of the world around us and our ability to influence it. These kinds of efforts unite government, universities and private industry in a productive collaboration – a partnership for which there is no substitute.”

Mr. Christopher Jehn, Vice President, Government Programs Cray Inc.

Mr. Jehn began with an account of Cray's rich history, followed by current challenges to the industry and proposed recommendations. He explained how supercomputing is crucial to the federal government, the largest user of supercomputing in areas such as national defense and homeland security. Additionally, supercomputing has allowed for military superiority, scientific research, technological development, and industrial competitiveness. He claimed that progress in the field has slowed considerably as a result of reduced government funding and industry reluctance to invest in a market that is only two percent of the overall server marketplace.
“The lack of advancement in supercomputing technology not only puts our nation's leadership in supercomputing at risk, but it also creates significant technology gaps that threaten our lead in national security, science and engineering, and economic competitiveness,” said Jehn. “This impacts the scientific and engineering community in such a way that many critical computational problems remain unsolvable in a timely and efficient manner.”
He notes that the U.S. Government recognizes the importance of a healthy domestic supercomputing industry. He cited a series of recent U.S. government-commissioned studies that all argue for increased federal support for supercomputer research and development. The Defense Department's integrated high-end computing report even recommends quadrupling federal funding for R&D.
Jehn outlined what he termed a “crisis in supercomputing.” This opinion is based on the failed promise of commodity-based supercomputers, which is represented by the current trend to scale up systems using inexpensive processors to achieve greater levels of performance. But he contends that, because of the general-purpose nature of these processors, these performance increases come at the cost of computing efficiency. Cray has proposed a paradigm shift in supercomputing — its Adaptive Computing strategy — that will enable the development of much more powerful supercomputers.
“But we need federal government support for this vision to reach its fullest potential in a timely manner, as the market is not large enough to fund the risky, leading-edge research and development that is required,” said Jehn. “Our recommendation to this committee and the Congress is to fully fund the Administration's proposed government investments in supercomputing. This includes funding supercomputing programs in the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and within the Department of Defense. To continue international leadership in science, industry and national security, the United States government must fully fund the continued evolution of supercomputers and give scientists access to the computational capability for a wide range of scientific and engineering disciplines. This investment will be justified by an array of future breakthroughs from more efficient, quieter planes and space vehicles to improvements in digital imaging and drug discovery. The promises of supercomputers are limited only by our imagination.”

Mr. Jack Waters, Executive Vice President and CTO, Level 3 Communications Inc.

Mr. Waters illustrated the importance of funding both high performance computing and high performance networking. He focused on the need to share large quantities of information in a timely manner among geographically distributed research centers. The Large Hadron Collider (LGC) exemplifies this need. When it goes online in 2007, it will produce an output stream approaching a terabit per second and will be shared with thirty-four research centers around the world. Current network infrastructure is unable to handle this demand. 

Citing other examples of projects that require or will require extremely high-bandwidth, Waters surmised that costly instrumentation compels researchers to work together rather than duplicate efforts. Interdisciplinary research also calls for collaboration among various centers.

“These two factors, cost efficiency and the need for research collaboration among geographically distributed centers, underlie and motivate the need for efficient, high performance networks to interconnect these various research centers,” said Waters.

In conclusion, Waters shared his vision for the future: “I believe that a federal policy that achieves a balance of investment and focus on the three key elements of the nation's 'cyber-infrastructure' — computing power, software, and networking — is likely to yield the greatest benefits. A balanced approach will: 1) contribute to the attainment of the goals of the American Innovation Act; 2) work to ensure that all of the essential elements of the nation's 'innovation infrastructure' are available to facilitate advanced research; 3) contribute to Homeland Security and National Defense; and 4) fortify the United States' economic and technological competitive position.”

Dr. Joseph Lombardo, Director, National Supercomputing Center for Energy and the Environment University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Lombardo described how support for high performance computing has waxed and waned in response to perceived foreign competition. For example, initial federal support came with the NSF's 1983 Lax Report in response to concerns over Japan's Sixth Generation Computer. He also demonstrated how government, academic and corporate interested are tied together. Support for high-end “Grand Challenges”, once a priority in the late 1980's, was retracted in 1993. The problems were considered too difficult, and the focus shifted to off-the-shelf technology.

“Scientific and technological preeminence for the U.S. is related directly to high performance computing. Support for federal funding of high performance computing has ebbed and flowed as a result of perceived foreign competition, said Lombardo. “Collaborations of federal laboratories and agencies, academic institutions and corporate interests are key to advancing both technologies and applications, but require federal funding to do so.”

He commented on renewed emphasis on high-end capability. Among several key factors cited are the DARPA program, the High Performance Computing Revitalization Act, the President's 2006 state of the Union Address, and the FY 07 budget which increased DOE's high performance computing programs by almost $100 million.

Lombardo concluded, “Federal funding for high performance computing should encourage development of cutting edge, high-end technologies, capable of addressing 'Grand Challenge' problems as well as mid-range projects.”

Mr. Michael Garrett, Director, Airplane Performance Boeing Commercial Airplanes

Mr. Garrett provided a series of examples detailing how high performance computing has contributed to the development of aircraft design. Of the many benefits achieved are faster solutions to more complex problems, less time to develop new products, and lower overall cost. Of particular interest is how a noise reduction feature called “chevrons” was developed for use in the 787.

“We were able to simulate the noise reduction characteristics of numerous chevron configurations and determine the best configuration for noise reduction before ever testing in the acoustic tunnel or in actual flight test,” said Garrett. “This means the 787 will be a quieter aircraft, making it more environmentally friendly for those who live and work near airports.”

High performance computing together with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) has enabled great strides in wing development. In twenty-five years Boeing's testing requirement decreased from 77 wings to eleven wings for the 787, a reduction of over 80 percent. Garrett reported that those eleven wings required fewer people, less time, and wind tunnel results matched CFD predictions. Boeing envisions a future in which all simulation work will be done computationally; this will allow them to test only two or three wings in the wind tunnel instead of the eleven required for the 787. Boeing's reliance on computing continues to grow and has proved a solid investment.

Garrett commented: “Boeing is committing large amounts of resources to provide the necessary computing capability we require. During the development of the 787, we have nearly doubled the capacity of our high performance computing data center year after year. This is a big investment of capital, but one that we are willing to make because there is a measurable return for that investment. While our high performance computing usage has increased, the cost per unit has been dramatically reduced by 50 percent making our development tools more and more cost effective.”

Dr. Stanley Burt, Director, Advanced Biomedical Computing Center

Dr. Burt described an impressive number of advancements in the field of biology and medicine, all made possible by high performance computing. Emerging biotech tools, such as microarray chips, mass-spectrophotometry devices, advanced microscopy instrumentation, and other technologies are creating an enormous amount of data that can only be analyzed with the help of high performance computers.
“Taken together, these new methods and the need to process and analyze the data produced by them have resulted an explosion in the need for high performance computing in biology and medicine,” said Burt. “This need requires both increased capacity, as the sheer volume of data generated is considerable, and also increased capability. One of the confounding problems associated with the needs analysis of this problem is that there does not appear to be any single solution to the problem. Because of the diversity in the algorithmic requirements for analysis of each of these data types, no particular computer hardware seems suited for all of the problems.”
Burt discussed cutting-edge medical technology, such as nanotechnology-based treatments, drug design, synthetic enzymes and integrative biology, that have been targeted as computational bottlenecks by the National Cancer Institute. The potential value of these technologies to public health would be enormous, but all would benefit greatly from more advanced computational capabilities.
He suggested that a U.S investment in HPC hardware and software would yield large dividends in the advancement of biological research and help keep us globally competitive. He also recommended that we fund several centers for Integrative Computational Technology for Systems Biology. These centers would provide for the integration of biology, computer technology and analytic tools, as well as serve as interdisciplinary training facilities for scientists.
Burt concluded: “It has been said that biology will be the science of the 21st century. Due to the complexity of biology, the sheer volume of data, the fact that the environment of a cell, (particularly for cancerous cells) must be taken into account means that biology must be tackled using a systems biology approach. This means that teams of scientists such as biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists should work on these problems in conjunction. In order to do this, it will require cross training to have a meaningful dialogue. I believe that in order for the United States to remain competitive we should devote funding to education and training in the above disciplines. We also need to find mechanisms to encourage young people to enter the scientific field.”

Mr. Tom West, CEO, National LambdaRail

In written testimony, Mr. West emphasized the importance of high-capacity optical networks, outlined the mission of the National LambdaRail (NLR), and urged support for a strong national research infrastructure. West stated that one of the most effective ways to increase the nation's competitiveness is by making high performance resources more available. High-capacity optical networks, such as NLR, are necessary to get the most out of those resources.

“The mission of the NLR is to build an advanced, nationwide network infrastructure to support many types and levels of networks for research, clinical, and educational fields,” explained West. “The infrastructure supports both experimental and production networks, fosters networking research, promotes next-generation applications, and facilitates interconnectivity among regional and international high performance research and education networks. Furthermore, NLR is scalable to accommodate the ever-increasing computing demands of the future.”

Network research will support projects in such fields as high-energy nuclear physics and radio astronomy. However, these types of projects could overwhelm existing networks according to West. These projects need support to meet ever-increasing demands.

West concluded, “Today more than ever, growth in our economy is increasingly linked to the investments made in fundamental research to advance computing and communications technologies. We urge your continued support for strengthening investments in America's future with a strong national research infrastructure for advancing discovery, innovation, and education.”

The webcast and witnesses' written testimony are available here.

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