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Industry Perspective: Remarks on Policy and Economics for High-Performance Computing
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Industry Perspective:
Remarks on Policy and Economics for High-Performance Computing

David Wehrly

David S. Wehrly is President of ForeFronts Computational Technologies, Inc. He received his Ph.D. and joined IBM in 1968. He has held numerous positions with responsibility for IBM's engineering, scientific, and supercomputing product development. Dr. Wehrly pioneered many aspects of technical computing at IBM in such areas as heterogeneous interconnect and computing systems, vector, parallel, and clustered systems, and computational languages and libraries. He was until August 1992 Director of IBM's High-Performance/Supercomputing Systems and Development Laboratories, with overall, worldwide systems management and development responsibility for supercomputing at IBM.

I would like to share some of my thoughts on high-performance computing. First, I would like to make it clear that my opinions are my own and may or may not be those of IBM in general.

The progress of high-performance computing, in the seven years since the last Frontiers of Supercomputing conference in 1983, has been significant. The preceding sessions in this conference have done an excellent job of establishing where we are in everything from previous hit architecture next hit to algorithms and the technologies required to realize them. There are, however, a few obstacles in the road ahead, and perhaps we are coming to some major crossroads in the way we do business and what the respective roles of government, industry, and academia are.


There is a lot more consensus on where to go than on a plan of how to get there, and we certainly fantasize about more than we can achieve in any given time. However, in a complex situation with no perfect answers—and without a doubt, no apparent free ride—most would agree that the only action that would be completely incorrect is to contemplate no action at all.

Herb Striner (Session 11) was far more articulate and Alan McAdams (same session) was more passionate than I will be, but the message is the same. Leading edge in supercomputing is certainly not for the faint of heart or light of wallet!

The Office of Science and Technology Policy report on the federal High Performance Computing Initiative of 1989 set forth a framework and identified many of the key issues that are inhibiting the advance of U.S. leadership in high-performance computing. There are many observers of the current circumstances that contend that it is a lack of a national industrial policy and extremely complex, bilateral relationships with countries such as Japan, with which we are both simultaneously allies and competitors, that assures our failure.

So, what are the major problems that we face as a nation? We have seen this list before:

• the high cost of capital;

• a focus on short-term revenue optimization;

• inattention to advanced manufacturing, quality, and productivity;

• unfair trade practices; and

• the realization that we are behind in several key and emerging strategic technologies.

Although this is not a total list, it represents some of the major underlying causes of our problems, and many of these problems arise as a result of the uncertain role government has played in the U.S. domestic economy, coupled with sporadic efforts to open the Japanese markets.

When viewed with respect to the U.S. Trade Act of 1988, Super 301, and the Structural Impediment Initiative talks, statements by high-profile leaders such as Michael Boskin, Chairman, Council of Economic Advisors—who said, "potato chips, semiconductor chips, what is the difference? They are all chips."—or Richard Darman, Director, Office of Management and Budget—who said, "Why do we want a semiconductor industry? We don't want some kind of industrial policy in this country. If our guys can't hack it, let them go."—must give one pause to wonder if we are not accelerating the demise of the last pocket of support for American industry and competitiveness and moving one step closer to carrying out what Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr., a veteran U.S.-Japanese


negotiator, characterized as "our own death wish." His observations (see the July 1990 issue of Business Tokyo ) were made in the context of Craig Fields's departure from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. We must recognize such confusion about our technology policy that is in contrast to the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), in which a single body of the Japanese government fine tunes and orchestrates an industrial policy.

I am not advocating that the U.S. go to that extreme. However, some believe the U.S. will become a second- or third-rate industrial power by the year 2000 if we do not change our "ad hoc" approach to technology policy. The competitive status of the U.S. electronic sector of the industry is such that Japan is headed toward replacing the U.S. as the world's number one producer and trader of electronic hardware by mid-1990, if not earlier.

So, what is needed? The U.S. needs a focused industrial policy that is committed to rejuvenating and maintaining the nation's high-tech strength. Such a policy must be focused—a committed government working in close conjunction with American business and academic institutions. Technical and industrial policy must be both tactical and strategic and neither isolated from nor confused by the daily dynamics of politics.

I would summarize the key requirements in the following way:

• We need to recognize economic and technological strength as vital to national security. We must understand fully the strategic linkages between trade, investment, technology, and financial power. The Japanese achieve this through their keiretsu (business leagues).

• Institutional reforms are needed to allow greater coordination between government, academia, and business. MITI has both strengths and weaknesses, but first and foremost, it has a vision—the promotion of Japan's national interest.

• The U.S. must strengthen its industrial competitiveness. Measures are necessary to encourage capital formation, increase investment, improve quality, promote exports, enhance education, and stimulate research and development.

• America must adopt a more focused, pragmatic, informed, and sophisticated approach toward Japan on the basis of a clear industrial policy and coherent strategy with well-defined priorities and objectives, without relegating Japan to a position of adversary. We must recognize Japan for what it is—a brilliant negotiator and formidable competitor.

From an economic standpoint, the U.S. has a growing dependence on others for funding our federal budget deficit, providing capital for investment, selling consumer products to the American public, and


supplying components for strategic American industrial production. American assets are half of their 1985 value, and Americans pay twice as much for Japanese products and property.

Sometimes we are obsessed with hitting home runs rather than concentrating on the fundamentals that score runs and win games. Our focus is on whose machine is the fastest, whose "grand challenges" are grandest, and who gets the most prestigious award. While all of this is important, we must not lose sight of other, perhaps less glamorous but possibly more important, questions: How do we design higher quality cars? How do we bring medicines to market more quickly? How can we apply information technologies to assist in the education of our children? The answers to these questions will come by focusing on designing high-performance computers for the sake of technology and by focusing on applications.

To achieve these objectives, significant work will be required in the hardware, software, and networking areas. Work that the private sector does best should be left to the private sector, including hardware and software design and manufacture and the operation of the highly complex network required to communicate between systems and to exchange information. Even the Japanese observed in their just-completed supercomputing initiative that industry, through the demands of the market, had far exceeded the goals set by MITI and that the government had, in fact, become an inhibitor in a project that spanned almost a decade. Our government, however, could assist tremendously if it would focus attention on the use of high-performance computing to strengthen both American competitiveness and scientific advances by serving as a catalyst, by using high-performance computing to advance national interests, and by participating with the private sector in funding programs and transferring critical skills and technologies.

We have said a lot about general policy and countering the Japanese competitive challenge, but what about the technology challenge, from previous hit architecture next hit to system structure? What are the challenges that we face as an industry?

At the chip level, researchers are seeking new levels of component density and new semiconductor materials and cooling technologies and exploring complex new processing and lithographic techniques, such as soft X-ray, for fabricating new chips. Yet, as the density increases and fundamental device structures become smaller, intrinsic parasitics and interconnect complexities bring diminishing returns and force developers to deal with an ever-increasing set of design tradeoffs and parameters.


This is demanding ever-higher capital investment for research and development of tooling and manufacturing processes.

Ultimately, as we approach one-nanosecond-cycle-time machines and beyond, thermal density and packaging complexities are causing a slowing of the rate of progress in both function and performance for traditional previous hit architectures next hit and machine structures. With progress slowing along the traditional path, much research is now being focused on higher, or more massive, degrees of parallelism and new structural approaches to removing existing road blocks to enable the computational capacity required for the challenges of tomorrow. Japan, too, has discovered this potential leverage.

At the system level, the man-machine interface is commanding a lot of development attention in such areas as voice recognition and visualization and the algorithms needed to enable these new technologies. These areas are opening up some exciting possibilities and creating new sets of challenges and demands for wideband networking and mass storage innovations.

Probably the greatest technology challenge in this arena is parallel software enablement. At this juncture, it is this barrier more than anything else that stands in the way of the 100- to 10,000-fold increase in computing capacity required to begin to address the future scientific computational challenges.

In summary, scientific computing and supercomputers are essential to maintaining our nation's leadership in defense technologies, fundamental research and development, and, ultimately, our industrial and economic position in the world. Supercomputers and supercomputing have become indispensable tools and technology drivers, and the U.S. cannot afford to relinquish its lead in this key industry.

I believe the High-Performance Computing Act of 1989 offers us in its objectives an opportunity to stay in the lead, though I do have some concerns involving the standards and intellectual-property aspects of the bill. I encourage a national plan with an application focus and comprehensive network and believe the time for action is now. I am persuaded that work resulting from implementation of this act will encourage the government and the private sector to build advanced systems and applications faster and more efficiently.


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