Washington–Supercomputers keep breaking records for processing speed, but software to operate them has not kept up with that increasingly zippy hardware. The often-rickety supercomputing computer code is becoming an obstacle to making better weather models, medical simulations, and other applications of high-performance computers, said experts at a conference here Wednesday on the future of academic supercomputing.
“Codes are still being used from the 1960s,” said Ed Seidel, director of the National Science Foundation’s office of cyberinfrastructure, in an interview at the meeting. “Those have to be retooled or rethought” to take full advantage of the latest supercomputers, he said.
Attendees at the meeting said one of the most popular computer languages used to create programs for supercomputers is Fortran, which went out of style among conventional programmers decades ago and is rarely even taught in college computer-science departments today. It’s as if your new laptop still ran MS-DOS, the operating system that predated Windows on personal computers.
In other cases, college researchers run their supercomputing projects using homemade software which was written decades ago, but which has been patched to run on the latest machines, said Phil Smith, senior director of the Texas Tech High Performance Computing Center at Texas Tech University. “The people who wrote those codes have gone away — they’ve retired,” he said.
The issue was one of the several raised at the two-day meeting, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation.
The problem is that it is hard to find money to support the development of a new breed of supercomputing software, several attendees said. The National Science Foundation has long helped colleges buy supercomputers, but gives few grants to build software for them.
Representatives from supercomputing manufacturers who attended the meeting said there is not a large-enough market for them to focus on software. Peter Ungaro, president and chief executive of Cray Inc, one of the largest supercomputer manufacturers, said he hopes that university researchers can jointly develop a new generation of software that would run on any company’s hardware.
Mr. Seidel said the National Science Foundation recently set up a committee to look into the supercomputing-software issue and make recommendations for how to fix it. Those recommendations are expected within the next year, he said.
But some attendees said they have little hope that the committee will solve the problem. “I wouldn’t even put ‘hope’ in the same sentence as the committee,” said Jess Cannata, head of high-performance computing at Georgetown University. “It’s so hard of a problem that no one wants to touch it.”