Barriers to Use of Supercomputers in the Industrial Environment
Robert J. Hermann was elected Vice President, Science and Technology, at United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in March 1987. In this position, Dr. Hermann is responsible for assuring the development of the company's technical resources and the full exploitation of science and technology by the corporation. He also has responsibility for the United Technologies Research Center and the United Technologies Microelectronics Center. Dr. Hermann joined UTC in 1982 as Vice President, Systems Technology, in the electronics sector. He was named Vice President, Advanced Systems, in the Defense Systems Group in 1984.
Dr. Hermann served 20 years with the National Security Agency, with assignments in research and development, operations, and NATO. In 1977 he was appointed principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Communications, Command, Control, and Intelligence. He was named Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research, Development, and Logistics in 1979 and Special Assistant for Intelligence to the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in 1981.
He received B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. Dr. Hermann is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the Defense Science Board, and the National Society of Professional Engineers' Industry Advisory Group. He is also
Chairman of the Naval Studies Board and of the Executive Committee of the Navy League's Industrial Executive Board.
I will discuss my point of view, not as a creator of supercomputing-relevant material or even as a user. I have a half-step in that primitive class called management, and so I will probably reflect most of that point of view.
United Technologies Corporation (UTC) makes jet engines under the name of Pratt and Whitney. We make air conditioners under the name of Carrier. We make elevators under the name of Otis. We make a very large amount of automobile parts under our own name. We make helicopters under the name of Sikorsky and radars under the name of Norden.
There is a rich diversity between making elevators and jet engines. At UTC we are believers in supercomputation—that is, the ability to manage the computational advantages that are qualitatively different today than they were five years ago; and they will probably be qualitatively different five years from now.
The people in Pratt and Whitney and in the United Technologies Research Center who deal with jet engines have to deal with high-temperature, high-Mach-number, computational fluid dynamics where the medium is a plasma. These are nontrivial technical problems, and the researchers are interested in three-dimensional Navier-Stokes equations, and so on. It is in an industry where being advanced has visible, crucial leverage, which in turn results in motivation. Thus, there are pockets in UTC where I would say we really do believe, in an analytic sense, in design, process, simulation, and visualization.
It seems to me that when I use the term "supercomputation," I have to be in some sense connoting doing things super—doing things that are unthinkable or, at least, unprecedented. You have to be able to do something that you just would not have even tried before. Thus, an important barrier in "supercomputation" is that it requires people who can think the unthinkable, or at least the unprecedented. They have to have time, they have to have motivation, and they have to have access.
Also, those same people clearly have to have hardware, software, math, physics, application, and business perspectives in their head. The critical ingredient is that you need, in one intellect, somebody who understands the software, the hardware, the mathematics to apply it, the physics to understand the principles, and the business application. This is a single-intellect problem or, at least, a small-group problem. If you do not have this unity, you probably cannot go off and do something that was either unthinkable or unprecedented. Getting such individuals and groups together is indeed a barrier.
A business point of view will uncover another big barrier in the way we organize our businesses and the way that businesses are practiced routinely. The popular way of doing business is that the total business responsibility for some activity is placed in the hands of a manager. Total business responsibility means that there are many opportunities to invest various kinds of resources: time, money, management. Supercomputation is certainly not the thing that leaps to mind the first time when someone in most businesses is asked, "What are some of the big, burning problems you have?"
In our environment, you legitimately have to get the attention of the people who have the whole business equation in their heads and in their responsibility packages. One thing that does get attention is to say that small purchases are easier to make than large purchases. UTC is a very large corporation. At $20 billion and 200,000 employees, you would think that at that level you could afford to make large purchases. However, we have broken the company down in such a way that there are no large outfits. It is a collection of small outfits such that it is more than ten times easier to make ten $100,000 purchases than one $1 million purchase. That equation causes difficulty for the general problem of pulling in the thing called supercomputation because in some sense, supercomputation cannot be bought in small packages. Otherwise, it isn't super.
It is also true that the past experiences of the people who have grown up in business are hard to apply to supercomputation. It is not like building a factory. A factory, they know, makes things.
UTC is an old-line manufacturing outfit. We are one of thousands of old-line manufacturing outfits that exist on a global basis. We are the class of folks who make the money in the world that supports all the research, development, and investment.
The people who are in charge do not naturally think in terms of supercomputation because it is moving too fast. We have to educate that set of people. It is not an issue of pointing fingers in blame, although we are representative. But I would also say to someone who is trying to promote either the application of supercomputation as a field or national competitiveness through the use of supercomputation, "This is a barrier that has to be overcome." It will probably not be overcome totally on the basis of the motivation of the structure of the corporation itself.
We need to be educated, and I have tried to figure out what is inhibiting our using supercomputers. Several possible answers come to mind.
First, we do not know how to relate the advantage to our business. And we do not have time to do it, because our nose is so pressed to the grindstone trying to make money or cash flow or some other financial equation. The
dominance of the financial equation is complete as it is, and it is fundamental to the existence of the economic entity. But somehow or another, there has to be some movement toward making people know more about the application of supercomputers to their business advantage.
Another issue is the question of how to pay for supercomputers. If you purchase large items that are larger than the normal business element can buy, you have to cooperate with somebody else, which is a real big barrier because cooperating with somebody else is difficult.
Also, how you do the cost accounting is a nontrivial business. Indeed, we at UTC probably would not have a Cray if it had not been forced on us by the National Aerospace Plane Program Office. When we got it, we tried to figure out how to make it useful across the corporation, and we were hindered, obstructed, and eventually deterred in every way by the cost-accounting standards applied by the government.
Now, what are we doing about it? I would say we are trying to do something about it, although we may be way behind as a culture and as a group. We are trying to build on those niche areas where we have some capability, we are trying to use our own examples as precedents, we are surveying ourselves to try to understand what is meaningful, and we are trying to benchmark ourselves against others.
In 1989 we participated in some self-examination that we did over the course of the year. We have agreed that we are going to establish a network in which we can do scientific computation in a joint venture with laboratories, etc., to transport the necessary technology.
This is also a national issue. The national competitiveness issue must be somewhere out there at the forefront. In the national competitiveness area, to become a patriot, supercomputation is important—as infrastructure, not as a subsidy. I would think that some notion of an infrastructure, which has some geographic preference to it, is likely to be needed. I would therefore argue that networked data highways and attached supercomputation networks have some national competitiveness advantages, which are a little bit different from the totally distributed minicomputer that you can ship anywhere and that does not have a particular geographic or national preference associated with it.
From a national point of view, and as a participant in national affairs, I can have one view. But from a corporate point of view, I am somewhat neutral on the subject: if we do not do it in the U.S., the Europeans probably will, and the Japanese probably will; and we will then have to use the European-Japanese network because it is available as a multinational corporation.