originally appeared in the August 19 edition of ORNL Today

Lab key in drive to regain supercomputing lead

Rep. Zach Wamp (left) listens to Dr. Orbach's scientific computing plan.

ORNL will be a prime proving ground and centerpoint for a DOE, industry- and university-wide initiative to reestablish U.S. supremacy in scientific computing, Office of Science Director Ray Orbach announced Thursday afternoon at a reception at the Oak Rdge Chamber of Commerce.

The program, Dr. Orbach says, will be on a scale with the Spallation Neutron Source, both in size and importance to the nation. Dr. Orbach, Battelle CEO Carl Kohrt and a host of DOE officials are in town this week for ORNL's annual on-site review.

The first step in the initiative is occurring at ORNL-the Lab will test the effectiveness of a new Cray, Inc., supercomputer architecture by acquiring a 32-processor Cray X1 supercomputer system. The Cray is the first U.S.-made supercomputer to offer vector and massively parallel processing in a single architecture.

Japan leaped ahead of the field last April with its Earth Simulator supercomputer. It operates with 50 percent efficiency at 40 teraflops. U.S. supercomputers currently operate at a maximum 10 percent efficiency at 12 teraflops. Dr. Orbach explained in a news conference Thursday that the Japanese accomplished their feat by designing a computer strictly for science. The U.S. hasn't used that approach.

"Our computers aren't built for science; they are built for commercial uses," Dr. Orbach says. "It's one size fits all."

Dr. Orbach emphasized, as he did in Wednesday's "First Light" ceremony, that scientific computing-simulation-has taken on equal importance with theory and experimentation in the scientific process. That's why losing ground to an overseas nation causes such concern.

"I cannot overemphasize its severity," Dr. Orbach says. "I am doing everything I can to make it an administration priority."

He predicted it will take four to five years to catch up with the Earth Simulator. The price of the program over that time, involving five national labs, industry and universities, will be around $1 billion, similar in scope to the SNS. The initial '03 funding for the Cray project is in the $2-3 million range. Rep. Zach Wamp pointed out that ORNL's reputation for science and leadership plays a key role in bringing much of the work at the Lab.

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