Four new centers for supercomputing Essay

A few years ago, astrophysicist Larry L. Smarr had to go to Munich, West Germany, to gain access to a computer that was fast enough to do the calculations he needed for his theoretical study of black holes. Ironicall, the supercomputer he used had been manufactured in the United States.

Now, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Smarr directs the new $75 million Center for Supercomputing Applications, will soon get its own supercomputer. This week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that Illinois is one of four institutions that will share about $200 million over the next five years to establish “national advanced scientific computing” centers.

The other centers will be at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., at the University of California at San Diego where 1 8 universities and research institutes will contribute to the center, and at a facility, run by a consortium of 12 universities, near Princeton, N.J., NSF selected these four winners from about two dozen proposals submitted as part of a nationwide competition.

“We are establishing four ‘Fermilabs’ for theorists,” says John W.D. Connolly, director of NSF’s Office of Advanced Scientific Computing, referring to the multimillion-dollar facility that particle physicists have long used for their experiments.

“It’s been a long time comin,” says Smarr, who along with people like Cornell physicist Kenneth G. Wilson lobbied for two years to get NSF and Congress to recognize the need to equip universities with state-of-the-art computers (SN:9/29/84, p. 200). Wilson now heads the Center for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering at Cornell.
To match NSF funding, the new centers are expected to raise a total of $200 m illion from state governments and industry. Cornell’s center, for example, will receive more than $30 million in equipment and services from IBM Corp.

Cornell’s supercomputer will feature the pioneering combination of an IBM 3084QX computer with a number of special scientific processors manufactured by Floating Point Systems of Portland, Ore. This experiment is of particular interest to the computer industry because IBM does not yet manufacture a supercomputer. The other center will be using supercomputers provided by Cray Research Inc. or Control Data Corp.

“We are taking a major step in providing to scientists and engineers throghout the country the kind of supercomputing power needed to strengthen our research activities,” says Erich Bloch, NSF director. “We expect that the solution to many important unsolved problems will now be possible.”

NSF and university officials insist that the new supercomputing centers will be devoted stricty to basic research by university scientists and engineers. Each center, however, will emphasize slightly different applications.

Researchers throughout the country will have access to the supercomputing centers by applying either to NSF or to the centerrs. Proposed high-speed communications networks may even make, it unnecessary for them to visit the centers to do their work. Such a network, says Smarr, would provide “a new computing environment,” which for researchers would be “like using a personal computer backed by the full power of a supercomputer.” In the San Diego system, for instance, about 200 users, sitting at their desks in places as far away as Hawaii or Maryland, would be able to use the computer at the same time.

However, the most important function served by these new centers, says Connolly, may turn out to be the training of students and researchers in the use of supercomputers.

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