Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

April 3, 1997

Supercomputing Center to continue despite NSF funding cut, Pitt and CMU leaders say

Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University leaders say they intend to keep the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center up and running — although they don't know yet how they will replace $15 million in annual funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The executive committee of the National Science Board, the NSF's governing body, voted March 28 to phase out NSF financial support of the Pittsburgh center.

The center will receive $15 million, roughly half its operating budget, from the NSF during the fiscal year that runs through September. Beyond that, NSF will grant the Pittsburgh center $11 million in "phase out" funding over the next two years.

The Pittsburgh Supercom-puting Center is a joint project of Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Westinghouse Electric Corp. It is one of four such centers supported by NSF.

But the science board voted last week to maintain just two of the centers — based at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and at the University of California at San Diego — and eliminate funding for the centers in Pittsburgh and at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Earlier this year, NSF officials had informally told Pitt and Carnegie Mellon that funding would be eliminated for their center, and recommended that it merge with the Illinois center.

But in a March 11 letter to NSF, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Carnegie Mellon President Robert Mehrabian ruled out such a partnership, saying that University of Illinois officials wanted to reduce staff at the Pittsburgh center and move its computers from the Westinghouse Energy Center in Monroeville to Champaign-Urbana.

Since its founding in 1985, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center has consistently been the first NSF-funded center to get the newest and most powerful supercomputers produced by Cray Research, Inc.

In August, the center received the first production model of the Cray T3E, including 256 processing units. Center officials had been hoping to receive an additional 256 units, to increase the machine's peak speed to 375 billion calculations per second. Ironically, the second batch of 256 processing units arrived on March 28 — the same day as the National Science Board decision.

In a joint statement issued that day, Nordenberg and Mehrabian said the science board's decision "can only be viewed as an unfortunate shift in national policy away from high-end computation." High-end users require the full capacity of speed and accuracy that the most advanced supercomputers provide. The Pittsburgh center has provided roughly as many computational cycles to high-end users as the other three supercomputing centers combined, Nordenberg and Mehrabian noted. Research projects performed with the Pittsburgh center's computers have included sophisticated models of the Gulf Stream, the Earth's magnetic field and blood flow through the heart. Simulating a single heartbeat required 150 hours of time on one of the center's Cray machines.

Nordenberg and Mehrabian said their universities "are both committed to exploring alternative funding opportunities that can keep this outstanding center operating in Pittsburgh. That result would be highly desirable for the western Pennsylvania economy. It also would ensure the continuation of services critical to the national computational infrastructure in solving the most complex science and engineering problems.

"Obviously, there are serious challenges to be met. We cannot predict at this point precisely what alternative approaches might be successful. However, we continue to believe that, because the Pittsburgh Supercom-puting Center can serve a national need not met by any other facility, we can attract the resources required for its continued operation." Pitt physics professor Ralph Roskies, who is co-scientific director of the Pittsburgh center, said he has alternative funding sources in mind but declined to specify them. "I don't want to tip my hand at this point," he said.

The state allocated $1.5 million to the Pittsburgh center for the current fiscal year, but Gov. Tom Ridge did not recommend any funding for it in next year's proposed budget. However, the state House approved a budget amendment April 1 granting $2 million to the center. To take effect, the amendment also needs approval from the Senate and the governor's office.

The center has about 90 professional employees and plans no layoffs in the near future, Roskies said. "We have to figure out what it is we're going to do, then we'll figure out the [personnel] implications," he said.

The center allocates time on its machines one year in advance, beginning on April 1, which is the beginning of the NSF allocations year. "So right now, we're booked through the end of March 1998," Roskies said.

With the elimination of the Pittsburgh and Cornell centers, the NSF's $65 million annual supercomputing budget will be shared by the Illinois and San Diego centers.

NSF Director Neal Lane said in a prepared statement that the foundation's supercomputing program "is not just about faster computers." He said the Illinois and San Diego centers will continue to provide high-end computing but also will offer broader access to scientists and engineers across the country, as well as educational programs for students in grades K-12.

National Science Board vice chairperson Diana Natalicio said that when NSF launched its supercomputing program in 1985, "the Internet did not exist and the state-of-the-art supercomputers could accomplish less than today's desktop workstation. Clearly, in a field that moves so quickly, we sometimes need to make the difficult choice to stop doing something good to enable something great."

— Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply