Is this the end of the line for Illinois supercomputers?
By John Pletz
Crain's Chicago Business
March 28, 2013
As the University of Illinois dedicates its $208 million supercomputer today, it's worth asking whether there will be any more ahead.
Blue Waters, as the machine is known, was funded largely by the National Science Foundation. Along with the U.S. Department of Energy, which built the Mira supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory, NSF is one of the few entities that builds cutting-edge supercomputers.
There's a question whether the feds will keep building machines at the same pace. NSF doesn't have firm plans to build its next machine. One reason is it's doing the research to figure out how the next generation of supercomputers will be built, given that Blue Waters shows that we're already bumping up against some very real limits of Moore's Law. But another big question — as the federal government starts to slash spending — is funding.
(DOE is planning another computer that's supposed to be 100 times faster than Mira to be built by 2018 but has no plans beyond that.)
Given that Illinois — from Chicago to Urbana-Champaign — has been a big beneficiary of these supercomputers, it's got plenty at stake.
I caught up with U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, whose district includes part of Argonne, as he was driving to Urbana to give the keynote at today's Blue Waters dedication.
“I have concerns that budget constraints are going to wind up slowing down the progress we've been making,” says Mr. Lipinski, who helped write part of the America Competes Act in 2010 that funded NSF projects. “There's a very legitimate concern. What is Congress going to prioritize with less money? The federal government is not putting in the research funding I think is necessary to keep the U.S. at the forefront of computing. My concern is we'll be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and cut back in science and technology at the federal level.
“With the Budget Control Act placing a cap on spending for the next 10 years, and the sequester placing additional restrictions, there is going to be a budget crunch,” he says. “There is going to be a question: Will DOE put that (next computer) off if they don't have as much funding as they'd like?”
Expect Mr. Lipinski, who is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee, to tell the bigwigs and researchers in Urbana-Champaign that he's onboard to protect research and that “Blue Waters represents much more than a science project.”
There are a bunch of companies, such as Chicago-based Boeing Co., that use these computers to develop products. “For Illinois, certainly having two of the five fastest supercomputers in the world is beneficial both for the university and national labs to do research but also" for private industry, he says.
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