From Grid To Growth

North Carolina hopes high-speed grid computing and supercomputers will create new jobs for residents.

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

May 7, 2004

4 Min Read

Michael Nelson, director of Internet technology and strategy at IBM and former Vice President Al Gore's technology adviser, says grid computing is a way for states such as North Carolina to stretch their IT budgets further. "In supercomputing, there's a big barrier to entry," Nelson says. "With grid, you're able to get your toe in the water." IBM, with about 13,300 employees in Research Triangle Park--roughly a third of the park's workers--three years ago co-developed a smaller project, the North Carolina Bioinformatics Grid, with MCNC. The new grid will try to encompass users in the automotive, pharmaceutical, and environmental sectors, Nelson says. North Carolina's vision is of a high-speed network that lets academic and corporate scientists share computing cycles and data across long distances using Internet protocols.

But can more-accessible supercomputers really make the state's businesses more competitive? "This is a new model of universities taking their science and entering the commercial world," says Al Segars, a professor of technology management at UNC. "Universities want to capitalize and get a return on their laboratories, and putting a supercomputer into a campus can be an economic-development engine. What the universities are struggling with now is a process for moving these inventions into the commercial world. It's not a smooth process." Teaming academics, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists can lead to disputes about who owns intellectual property, he says.

MCNC's Rizzo also admits there are some hurdles to clear. "Grid computing involves sharing," he says. "That's not exactly human nature."

According to the Renaissance Computing Institute's Reed, providing researchers with greater access to cutting-edge technology can lead to more innovative products. In North Carolina's furniture-making business, for example, computer-controlled machinery can turn out products more cheaply, and perhaps more accurately, than hand labor. But it also costs jobs. One potential institute project involves developing "intelligent furniture" with embedded technology that could help the elderly live more independently--and possibly create more work.

At MCNC, managing director Gentzsch says he's talking to regional auto-parts suppliers about renting time on the state's supercomputing grid to run sophisticated simulations that are often beyond their in-house capabilities but crucial to winning contracts from big automakers. "They're at a disadvantage location-wise to Detroit," Gentzsch says. "Now the grid means that even a small team in a rural environment can participate in a project." He hasn't found any takers yet.

Other Southern states, too, are investing in IT to try to spur their economies. Virginia Tech recently built one of the world's fastest supercomputers using 1,100 Apple Macintosh machines and plans to use it to attract new research money to the school. And Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen recently proposed $7.6 million in spending next year to build a biomedical research facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Politicians in many states believe they need to do something to create jobs, and high-tech jobs are considered among the most desirable. Whether the investments by states to deploy state-of-the-art computing and networking infrastructure will attract companies and private investment and ultimately create new jobs is hard to predict. North Carolina, for one, believes that its big bet on technology will pay off for residents.

Yet UNC's Segars is skeptical that new high-tech jobs can completely offset those the region has lost. Big North Carolina manufacturers such as Burlington Industries Inc. and Pillowtex Corp. have closed shop. In Research Triangle, an entire layer of midlevel IT management "has been wiped away," he says. "Those jobs have been replaced by service-level jobs in Wal-Mart. You're trading a $14-an-hour job for a $6-an-hour job. One of the things the state is hanging its hat on is the number of jobs in biotech. But life sciences isn't labor intensive. Casting it as a full replacement is flawed."

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