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12/22/2011
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Congress Funds Exascale Computing

The race is on for exascale computing, and Congress sees keeping the U.S. in the hunt as an imperative for long-term American competitiveness.

Slideshow: Government's 10 Most Powerful Supercomputers
Slideshow: Government's 10 Most Powerful Supercomputers
(click for larger image and for full slideshow)
The U.S. government was at the forefront of the race to petascale computing--that's a quadrillion calculations per second for those of you counting--with computers like Los Alamos National Lab's Roadrunner and Oak Ridge National Lab's Jaguar, and Congress has now thrown its weight behind reaching the next plateau, exascale computing.

Last week, House and Senate conferees agreed on full funding for the Department of Energy's effort to move toward exascale computing by providing $442 million for advanced scientific computing research, $126 million of which will go toward exascale computing, according to the president's budget proposal.

Exascale computing would represent one thousand times the computing capacity of petaflop computers, which themselves remain extremely rare--only 14 supercomputers made the grade as of the November 2011 list of the world's top 500 supercomputers. It took a dozen years to move from terascale to petascale, and researchers see the movement to exascale as a long-term goal as well.

[ The government sometimes has problems with technology. Read Top 10 Government IT Flops Of 2011. ]

Exascale computing could bring with it both an array of new computing technologies and new scientific results enabled through the huge increase in computing capacity. For example, an Oak Ridge National Lab report predicts the ability to more deeply understand nanotechnology, model climate processes at extremely high resolutions, and simulate nuclear interactions to a level un-thought of today.

The Department of Energy has been pondering exascale computing for several years already. Researchers at Sandia and Oak Ridge National Labs, for example, created the Institute for Advanced Architectures with exascale computing in mind in 2008.

Congressional funding doesn't come condition-free, however. Future funding, House and Senate conferees indicated in their conference report, is contingent on the Department of Energy delivering to Congress an exascale computing plan.

"The conferees support the [Energy] Department's initiative to develop exascale computing as a crucial component of long-term U.S. leadership, but are concerned that the department has not yet developed an integrated strategy and program plan," the report states.

Congress is addressing those concerns by requiring the Department of Energy to submit a "joint, integrated" exascale strategy by February 10 of next year that will include target dates, interim milestones, minimum requirements for an exascale system, multi-year budget estimates, breakdowns of each office and lab involved in exascale research, and a more granular budget request for 2013.

The funding comes as part of a much larger omnibus appropriations bill to fund government operations for the rest of fiscal 2012.

How 10 federal agencies are tapping the power of cloud computing--without compromising security. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek Government supplement: To judge the success of the OMB's IT reform efforts, we need concrete numbers on cost savings and returns. Download our Cloud In Action issue of InformationWeek Government now. (Free registration required.)

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