Strategic investments in high-performance computing enhance U.S. competitiveness
© Getty

In recent months, scientists at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center reported progress in the fields of genomics, public health, chemistry and machine learning thanks, in part, to a new National Science Foundation-funded supercomputer – Bridges. The system, which was also used to model the possible benefits of influenza vaccine choice, provided compelling results that suggest adopting a vaccine choice policy could curtail the national cost and enormous annual burden of influenza in the United States. 

Federal funding and support for supercomputers or high-performance computing (HPC) projects, such as Bridges, is critical for enabling new scientific discoveries and cures for diseases, enhancing national security and cyber defenses and improving economic competitiveness. Yet, U.S. leadership in this market is being contested as other countries are beginning to invest aggressively as they recognize the technology’s strategic importance.


Think of it like the Space Race of the 1960s, but with investment going into software and large-scale HPC systems rather than rockets. The stakes are different, but the potential for world-changing results is just as important.

While the U.S. continues to hold a prominent position in HPC, the Associated Press recently reported that China has now officially displaced the U.S. for the first time with the most supercomputers on the Top 500 listing of the fastest supercomputers in the world. Fifteen years ago China didn’t even have one HPC on the Top 500 listing. According to the International Data Corporation, the Asia Pacific region had a HPC growth of 15 percent in 2015, where the U.S. was only at 5 percent. The European Union has recently doubled their investment in supercomputing research, and Japan’s High Performance Computing Initiative program shows they are focused on building an exascale supercomputer by 2020, whereas the U.S. is currently on target for 2023.

The reality is that HPC systems are no longer a technology reserved for elite academic institutions, but are now bleeding into the enterprise, disrupting industries and impacting our nation’s competitiveness and innovation. For example, imagine a wind turbine. Without HPC, researchers could only test for very general system-wide improvements. With it, researchers can use HPC systems to handle massive amounts of data and complex calculations to analyze the impact of friction at multiple points on a single turbine blade, making improvements a millimeter at a time. Efficiency gains can multiply quickly at that level, leading to a whole new paradigm for investing in clean wind energy.

Organizations like the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center are also pushing the HPC envelope with new and innovative architectures. Bridges represents a new approach to supercomputing that focuses on research problems that are limited by data movement. In addition to serving traditional supercomputing users, Bridges will help researchers tackle new kinds of problems in genetics, the natural sciences and social sciences, where scientists are impacted by the volume of data rather than computational speed. This project highlights another innovative way HPC can help solve pressing issues facing the U.S.

But we can’t stop there. Given the explosion of vast amounts of data and the increasing importance of simulations in scientific research, we need to make the next exponential leap in HPC, exascale computing and next generation computing. To put in perspective, an exascale supercomputer could operate faster than 50 million laptops. As with the semiconductor industry, the country or region that leads HPC and exascale will capture the related economic and societal benefits. The U.S. simply cannot afford to fall behind in this race.

While the private sector continues to make significant HPC-related investments, the federal government also plays a vital role in advancing HPC research. HPE recently participated in an Information Technology Industry Foundation (ITIF) panel on Capitol Hill to urge Congress to fully fund the Administration’s FY2017 request on the National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI). The NCSI names three lead agencies, Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Defense, and National Science Foundation to lead these efforts.

Specifically, DOE plans to establish, over the next 15 years, a viable path forward for future HPC systems, and to research new progressive technologies that perform “beyond Moore’s law,” including the all-important exascale computing.

We continue to urge Congress to fund these critical investments, so the U.S. can enjoy the greatest rewards of HPC-driven technology and give our nation the advantage when attempting to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.

Bill Mannel is Vice President and General Manager of High-Performance Computing, Big Data and Internet of Things at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.