THE GOVERNMENT AS THE LEADING USER AND PURCHASER OF SUPERCOMPUTER TECHNOLOGY

Much technological innovation is, at least initially, directed to applications dominated by government involvement and purchasing. Most notably, defense and national security needs have often been the specific setting in which new technologies—including supercomputing—were first developed and applied. Even when commercial firms are the locus of research and development for new technology, governments are often the largest single customer for the resulting innovations.

Government demand for advanced information technology—including supercomputers—is not static. Historically, government demand has been quite responsive to current technological capabilities. As technical progress over time relaxes a given set of constraints, key government supercomputer purchasers have not simply taken advantage of a fixed level of performance at a lower cost; instead they spur continuing technical progress by demanding ever higher levels of technical performance.

The use of supercomputing allows mission-oriented government agencies to achieve their objectives more effectively, with the consequence that the federal government has a strong interest in ensuring a healthy rate of technological progress within supercomputing. The U.S. government remains the single largest purchaser of supercomputers in the world, and most federal supercomputer procurement is justified by the requirements of missions like national security and climate modeling.

For example, the justification for the original ASCI program was to promote supercomputing technology not for its own sake but for the sake of ensuring confidence in the nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing. DOE tried to achieve this objective by two means: The aggressive procurement of supercomputers throughout the 1990s and funding of the PathForward development program, which attempted to accelerate technical progress in the types of supercomputers used by the ASCI program.

Other defense and national security agencies have also been aggressive users of supercomputing technology. (See Chapter 4 for a description of specific applications.) For example, the timely calculation of areas of enemy territory where enemy radars are not able to spot our airplanes (such calculations were performed during the first Gulf war) can be crucial.1 Design and refurbishment of nuclear weapons depends critically on supercomputing calculations, as does the design of next-generation armament for the Army’s Future Combat System.

1  

William R. Swart. 1991. Keynote address. SC1991, Albuquerque, N.M., November 20.



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