Simulation Lab Gets Pushback on Chinese-Made Computer Parts

By Michael Feldman

August 18, 2011

The University of Tennessee’s SimCenter, aka the National Center for Computational Engineering, received some unwelcome attention this week when five members of Congress got wind of a contract that would put Chinese-made computer components into the center. The deal would put hardware made by China-based Huawei into the storage infrastructure there. Concerns were raised since supercomputers at SimCenter are tasked with sensitive military simulations, including flight tests for aircraft and spacecraft, and simulations of submarine warfare.

The storage in question is a Huawei Symantec NAS system, with Symantec providing the software and Huawei providing some of the hardware components.  The two companies formed a joint venture in 2008, with Huawei owning 51 percent of the hybrid organization.

Huawei has been the subject of controversy before. In 2010, the NSA urged major telecom companies to avoid using Huawei gear in the cell towers of the national 4G wireless network, because of potential security concerns. And then earlier this year, the company backed out of its plans to acquire server maker 3Leaf, when the deal came under scrutiny by the US government.

Fears of Huawei’s Chinese connection haven’t faded. According to a Washington Time article, four senators and one House member penned a letter to the Pentagon, the Department of Energy, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking them to review the SimCenter contract in light of potential risks to national security. According to the WT report, the five lawmakers wrote:

“Given Huawei’s close ties to the [Chinese] government and its military and intelligence sectors, its history of alleged corrupt practices and infringement on intellectual-property rights, and concerns it may act as an agent for a foreign government, Huawei is not an appropriate partner for advanced U.S. research centers – especially those working on critical or classified defense projects for the United States government.”

The lawmakers also said that Huawei has been subsidized by the Chinese government, which gives it an unfair advantage over its competition, particularly US-based companies.  Huawei Symantec has tried to keep a pretty low profile in its dealings in the States, preferring to use US-based companies to close deals.  In this case California-based MPAK, a systems integration, actually won the SimCenter bid, using Huawei Symantec as the NAS provider.

According to MPAK Founder and CEO Mike Kornblum, his company is using Huawei Symantec to compete against indigenous vendors like Isilon, Panasas, and BlueArc. Kornblum thinks Huawei Symantec could potentially shake up the U.S. market, security fears, notwithstanding. In the WT article, he was quoted as saying that the security concerns in this case are unfounded, noting that the Huawei hardware is not part of the hard drive componentry, where any sensitive data would be stored.

Huawei’s VP for external affairs, William Plummer, also pointed out that while security concerns are real, his company is global, adding “It is incorrect to suggest that the gear of one vendor is somehow less secure than the gear of another.”

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