Mon, Nov 08, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Pioneer's move to China will have major impact

TECHNOLOGICAL SHIFT A search for financing led computer designer Steve Chen to China, a step that could provide a huge boost to Beijing's push to build supercomputers


Galactic recently demonstrated a prototype of Chen's newest supercomputer at a biomedical research institute in Beijing. The machine, he said, is capable of 1 trillion calculations a second, a performance level that would place it among the top half of the world's 500 fastest computers.


Such computing now occupies a central role in the global economy, providing stark proof that decades-long US attempts to control the flow of advanced information-processing technologies are largely moot.

It is only a matter of time, experts say, before companies in countries like China, India and Russia essentially match the capabilities of the US and Japanese leaders.

"When they really get noticed," said Horst Simon, director of the computation center at the Law-rence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, "will be when a country like Malaysia or Australia decides to buy a supercomputer from a Chinese company like Mr. Chen's rather than from IBM."

Now that computer chips openly available anywhere in the world have reached such high speeds, the expertise needed to build supercomputers has shifted to the software needed to hook hundreds or thousands of processors together. Chen has long been recognized as one of the world's pioneers in that specialty.

Chen arrived in the US from Taiwan in 1975, at age 31, to pursue graduate studies in computer science. During the 1980s, Chen was widely considered one the leading computer designers in the US.

As a computer architect at Cray Research from 1979 to 1987, he gained a reputation for machines that were both elegant and blindingly fast. He also became known as a visionary who frequently needed assistance in finishing overambitious projects.

"He's very charismatic," said David Kuck, a computer scientist and Intel researcher, who was Chen's professor in a doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 1970s.

"His English wasn't the great-est, but everyone understood what he wanted to do," Kuck said.


As a graduate student, Chen designed one of the first software programs known as a parallel com-piler, which was useful in restructuring programs so they could run on computers with multiple processors. That pioneering work became the basis for much of today's commercial parallel computing software.

At Cray Research, Chen had an intense rivalry with Cray, who was leading a team that pursued a competing design.

Ultimately, Cray's chief executive, John Roll-wagen, canceled one of Chen's computer projects.

Soon afterward, in September 1987, Chen established his own supercomputing company, Supercomputing Systems, with backing from IBM.

That effort led to a partially completed prototype, but the company failed commercially in 1992 when IBM canceled funding.

Because the Cold War was ending, military funding for high-performance computing slowed dra-matically. Later, Chen became the chief technology officer of Sequent Computer Systems, which was later acquired by IBM.

US supercomputer experts said Chen's move to China could have a major impact, similar to the shock felt among government technology insiders back in 2002 when Japan developed the Earth Simulator, which is currently the world's fastest supercomputer.

"There is no stronger form of technology transfer than to have a world-class expert go off with all his knowledge," said Seymour Goodman, a physicist at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

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