Economics of clusters was Re: top500 list (was: opteron VS Itanium 2)

Jim Lux james.p.lux at
Tue Nov 18 00:01:21 EST 2003

Some philosophical comments below (and what is a list like this for, if not
philosophical comments)

rgb wrote:
> It's really a matter of mindset.  I've seen or heard of lots of very
> very expensive computers designed and assembled to accomplish some
> "really important" computation "really fast" that have been funded by
> all sorts of deep pocketed government agencies.  In some of those cases,
> building the computer was so difficult that it didn't even get finished
> before Moore's Law overtook it at 1/10th the cost using commodity
> hardware (anything that takes years to build is at real risk of this).
> Worse, a lot of the research funded this way isn't really burning issue
> stuff in that the outcome won't change people's lives.

Of course, one could make this argument about particle physics or deep space
exploration. Whether we find that next particle or discover life on Europa
or verify Einstein or find water on Mars won't affect a significant fraction
of the lives on Earth anytime soon (except those, like me, who get paid to
facilitate such exploration).  However, aside from the "white collar
welfare" aspect (not an aspect to be totally disregarded, what with pork
barrels and such), there are practical and immediate benefits. While the
actual application may not have much immediate need, it might provide a
framework, and specific application, that drives a development which has
general application.  Sometimes, a specific problem is needed to get work
rolling, rather than sitting in a "what might be the optimum general
solution" analysis mode for years. If the problem is stated as "determine
X", then something needs to get done, clusters need to get built (however
inefficient), technology needs to be developed, which is then "inserted"
into succeeding projects/missions etc.

Also, for anything novel, there's always the "I'm not going first" problem.
Like penguins wondering if there's a leopard seal in the water, someone's
got to jump in and show that you won't die instantly.  Sometimes, those
programs of perceived little value (and hence, little opprobrium if you
fail) provide the mechanism to demonstrate a new technology.

Jim Lux

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