High Performance Computing:

Advanced Research Projects Agency Should Do More to Foster Program Goals

IMTEC-93-24: Published: May 17, 1993. Publicly Released: May 17, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Advanced Research Projects Agency's (ARPA) High Performance Computing (HPC) Program, focusing on: (1) ARPA distribution of advanced computers to research sites; (2) ARPA interaction with the research community; (3) the balance between HPC software and hardware investments; and (4) the barriers that impede technological progress and prevent ARPA from achieving program goals.

GAO found that: (1) although ARPA actively involves itself with the research community by providing researchers with quick access to early prototypes of massively parallel processing machines (MPP), ARPA placement of the computers at research sites has been unjustifiably biased toward two contractors; (2) HPC technological progress has been slow due to limited ARPA interaction with the research community; (3) ARPA does not provide adequate research guidance or contractor selection information, has not set research goals, does not publish detailed summaries or progress reports, and fails to provide researchers with performance data; (4) the ARPA goal of increasing computing power by 1996 is in jeopardy, since HPC software development has not kept pace with hardware development; and (5) ARPA needs to increase its focus on HPC system software development.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to emphasize and support the research and development of MPP system software as a major element of the agency's HPC program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARPA has increased its focus on system software as a major component of its High Performance Computing program.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to sponsor annual or semi-annual conferences on the direction of the HPC program specifically to provide a forum for broad scientific input to the agency's HPC program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARPA responded to GAO's recommendation by sponsoring the first public symposium on its program in March 1994 and plans to continue such meetings in the future. It also actively participates in other public conferences regarding the direction of the overall federal High Performance Computing and Communications Program.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to establish and maintain a public database of information about the status and results of the agency's ongoing HPC projects as well as performance data for different MPP systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARPA has developed and made publicly available an online database of project results.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to develop, maintain, and publish a comprehensive list of qualified machines, including both ARPA-sponsored and non-ARPA-sponsored designs, that ARPA will assist sponsored researchers to acquire.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: ARPA's early placement program is now much more limited than it was when the report was issued. Furthermore, participation by competing vendors has been broadened. Therefore, it is no longer necessary for the agency to maintain a list of qualified machines.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to ensure that the agency's decisions to support high-performance computing research projects are not influenced by whether ARPA-supported computing platforms have been specified in researchers' proposals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the report was issued, ARPA has supported a number of projects using a variety of computing platforms. The agency's policy is to consider research proposals solely on their own merits.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to broaden the agency's computer placement program by including a wider range of computers from more vendors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARPA's early placement program, which has been redirected toward military specific applications, is now open to all vendors who wish to respond.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, ARPA, to ensure that a significant body of software development work is underway to aggressively advance the technology base, especially in MPP programming languages, effective compiler systems, and debugging and performance analysis tools. In order to achieve broad MPP use by 1996, ARPA must fund promising software prototypes to an advanced stage of development as it does for hardware, rather than limiting itself to supporting only the earlier stages of research and development.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARPA is funding significant efforts in the area of parallel languages, compilers, and debugging and performance analysis tools. In addition, it is working with other federal agencies, in the context of the federal High Performance Computing and Communications program, to ensure that all aspects of high performance computing research are adequately supported.

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