Supercomputing For The Masses Eric Swanson

In ancient times, according to Hawaiian mythology, a god scaled Maui's Haleakala volcano to grab the sun and point its rays toward the islands. Today, the 10,000-foot summit is being used as a base for U.S. Air Force telescopes that probe even farther into space. And at the foot of the mountain, near the town of Kihei, is the spanking-new Maui High Performance Computing Center (MHPCC). It's the westernmost point on America's information highway.

Although the Maui center just opened on Aug. 19, by yearend it is expected to be the second most powerful computer facility in the U.S., topped only by the one used by the National Security Agency. When the MHPCC's main machine--IBM's jazziest PowerParallel system--is running on all 400 of its "massively parallel" processors, its peak speed will exceed 125 billion calculations a second.

NEEDY NERDLESS. Some of that power will crunch the data collected by nearby telescopes and support research at Defense Dept. laboratories back on the mainland. But plenty will be left over for industry, says Frank L. Gilfeather, a mathematics professor at the University of New Mexico and a principal architect of the MHPCC. Compared with other Defense Dept. supercomputer facilities, "the Maui center is unique," he says, "because economic development was a principal mission from the start." Since most large companies that need access to a supercomputer are probably affiliated already with a national lab or a National Science Foundation (NSF) supercomputing center, Gilfeather says the MHPCC will stress "working with midsize companies" that can't afford their own digital-science nerds. "We will make a special effort to help these companies grow."

The good news for small and midsize companies is that Maui isn't going to be the only game in town. With Pentagon funds drying up, the national laboratories are desperately looking to rope in new sponsors. Los Alamos is even working with Centech Inc., a three-person company in Casper, Wyo., to help develop a better way to recycle oil sludge.

Sandia National Laboratories is also targeting smaller companies with Fastcast Inc., a consortium formed to improve metal-casting processes with computational tools. Founded in 1989 by Sandia and three companies--Komtek, TrueCast, and Manufacturing Sciences--the group now includes 16 members, some of whom have slashed development cycles from 18 months to 14 weeks.

SAFE TRAVELS. Sometimes these small companies surprise the labs' scientists with new uses for defense technology. For example, Frazer-Nash Consultancy Ltd., a 40-person company in Leatherhead, England, adapted Lawrence Livermore National Lab's Dyna-3D, the software used for crash-testing cars and planes, to analyze what happened to human bodies in the Jan. 8, 1991, train wreck in London's Cannon Street station. Now, Dyna-3D is yielding few insights into how to design safer vehicles of all sorts.

Working with industry may be a letdown for some scientists who for five decades saw themselves as the ultimate defenders of freedom. But Gilfeather believes that the long-term impact of such collaborations could be nearly as sweeping as the fall of communism. Digital science will change so many products and processes for the better, he says, "that it will make a profound difference the world over."