Europe prays that cathedrals to computing will help industry

The European Commission wants Europe to invest heavily in the development of petaflop supercomputing systems, to catch up with the US and Japan.

European researchers and politicians are counting on the development of a few key high-performance computing (HPC) centers to boost science and industry across the European Union. However, their bid to build a supercomputer capable of a million billion calculations per second is already falling behind the competition, with Japan and the US well on their way to that goal.

"Supercomputers are the 'cathedrals' of modern science, essential tools to push forward the frontiers of research at the service of Europe's prosperity and growth," said Viviane Reding, European commissioner for the Information Society, at the Tuesday opening of the Teratec conference on high-performance computing on the outskirts of Paris.

France, a hitherto secular state, is starting to see the value of such cathedrals to computing: "HPC is a competitive factor not just for research, but for the whole economy," said French Minister for Research Valerie Pecresse. "We have to catch up in HPC."

Supercomputing performance is typically measured in teraflops, or thousands of billions of floating point operations per second. With new supercomputers coming online, France has increased its high-performance computing capacity by a factor of 25 in six months, to around 470 teraflops, she said.

One thousand teraflops make a petaflop, Pecresse's next target: "Our goal should be the creation of petaflop computing centers."

But that target won't be reached by France -- or any other European country -- working alone.

Through the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE), 14 European countries, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK, plan to direct their existing national HPC efforts toward the creation of three to five "petascale" European supercomputer centers, each with computing power in excess of one petaflop.

The cost over 20 years of building and maintaining a petascale supercomputing facility could top US$3.1 billion, according to Achim Bachem of Julich Research Center, a German HPC laboratory. He estimates annual running costs at Euro 100 million to Euro 200 million, with the cost of construction around twice that. Yet such systems are soon overtaken in performance by newer models, and must be replaced every two or three years to keep up with advances in technology.

In comparison with those costs, the Euro 40 million that the European Commission has pledged to set up PRACE is barely seed capital.

While Europeans are still debating what legal structure to give PRACE (a question that should be resolved by the end of next year), other countries are busy building computers.

Japan began work on its petascale processing project, the Next Generation Supercomputing Center, in 2006. By the time it is complete in 2012, it will have swallowed US$1.1 billion. Work on the computer, which will be built on an island next to Kobe airport, is already well advanced: "We are in the middle of the detailed design of the computer chips and computer system," said Toshikazu Takada of the Computational Science Research Program at Japan's Riken research center. Japan's goals in building a petascale system are much like Europe's: to retain control of cutting-edge technologies, to promote application development and to create new IT businesses.

The US may already have its first petascale computer, according to Rick Stevens, an associate laboratory director at Argonne National Laboratory.

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