Can supercomputers help save the economy?

Universities, state officials push to broaden corporate access to high-performance systems

President-elect Barack Obama will soon outline an economic stimulus plan that likely will include billions of dollars for infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges and new schools. Obama also is hearing calls for new funding to improve the information infrastructure and the virtual highways it runs on, and to broaden access to high-performance computing (HPC) systems.

Thus far, the use of supercomputers to increase the industrial might of the US has amounted to little more than an asterisk from a financial standpoint in both the federal budget and the economy as a whole. Market research firm IDC estimates that the public and private sectors spent a combined total of just over US$10 billion on HPC systems last year.

To provide some perspective, consider this: since September, the US government has spent US$150 billion to keep insurer American International Group afloat. Meanwhile, HPC resources are inaccessible to many companies that could benefit from using the technology.

On the surface, all looks well with HPC. US federal agencies continue to fund the development of massive systems, such as IBM's Roadrunner, which this year became the first machine to break through the petaflop performance barrier. Cray's XT5 Jaguar, another system bought and paid for by the government, also topped the petaflop mark this month and was neck-and-neck with Roadrunner on the latest Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers.

Supercomputers provide something akin to a Second Life for engineers. Instead of building physical models of new products, HPC users can create them in virtual environments and then use the supercomputing horsepower to test how the products work and change design elements and materials as needed. That can cut weeks or even months off of the design and testing process, potentially giving a company a critical edge over its competitors.

But there's a problem in getting HPC capabilities into the hands of companies that create jobs. Thousands of businesses could conceivably make use of the systems, but many can't afford them -- leaving HPC's economic potential largely unrealized.

That has prompted some universities and academic institutions to launch programs under which they provide companies with access to high-performance systems as well as technical help. One such approach is being tested by the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) in Columbus and the Edison Welding Institute (EWI), a nonprofit organization that does research and consulting work on welding processes and technologies.

Last fall, the EWI, which is based in Columbus, began a beta program that makes a Web-based user interface available to welding engineers at its client firms. The institute's software lets the engineers input a wide range of data related to the joining of various materials. The data is run on a supercomputer at the OSC, and the engineers can view simulations that show how certain welds will work. The program gives companies access to HPC resources via a browser, with no programming required.

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