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Computing

Clinton advisers to warn that U.S. IT lead at risk

July 17, 1998
Web posted at: 4:00 PM EDT

by Rob Guth
From...


(IDG) -- An advisory committee appointed by President Bill Clinton is expected to release a report this month that concludes federal research and development of information technology funding is inadequate, and if not increased, the U.S. risks "being overcome by nations with a clearer plan and a stronger view of the future," according to a draft of the report obtained by IDG editors.

One of the committee's more striking findings is that the U.S. IT lead is built on a foundation of fragile software that could "inhibit the progress of the current boom in information technology" and is a threat to "the health and welfare of the nation," the report said.

"The once robust technological edge the United States has enjoyed over the rest of the world is actually built on an increasingly fragile technological substructure," the report said. "To keep its competitive edge, the United States must rededicate itself to cutting-edge high-tech research and development."

Among several recommendations, the committee advises the U.S. president to boost federal investment in three key IT areas: software, scalable information infrastructures, and high-end computing, which it says are under threat from inadequate investment. The committee recommends that the administration target investment at projects with larger scope and duration than those on which the government is currently focused.

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In addition, the group recommends that the government create a new agency within the U.S. National Science Foundation to manage overall IT research and development funding, according to the draft.

"This agency could serve as the 'lead agency' for information technology research, helping to define and coordinate activities in that area," the report said.

The 39-page report, which may be released as early as July 20, is the result of a year-long study by a 24-member committee of academics and computer industry leaders. The mandate of the committee is to assist the Clinton administration in setting policies over U.S. government spending on high performance computing, communications, information technology, and the next-generation Internet.

The committee is co-chaired by Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Ken Kennedy, director of the Center For Research on Parallel Computation at Rice University. Members include Vinton Cerf, senior vice president of Internet architecture and engineering at MCI, and David Nagel, president of AT&T Labs.

Overall, the committee found that total federal U.S. investment in IT research and development, while steady, "has not kept pace with IT's growing economic, strategic, and societal importance to the nation."

In addition, research and development investment by both the U.S. government and private sector is "excessively focused on near-term problems," according to the report. Specifically, research and development spending in recent years has tipped more toward "applied research" tailored to bringing products to market in the near term and away from "basic research," which takes a longer term view, the report said.

The report singles out the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which helped germinate the Internet and into the 1980s funded much innovative research. Now, however, the agency "judges all information technology funding in terms of its impact on the war-fighter," the report said.

"Total funding for basic research in the DARPA Information Technology Office is less than $20 million out of a total office budget of more $200 million, an inadequate investment," the report said.

The rapid growth of demand for software is rapidly outstripping the country's ability to produce it, creating a sort of "software gap," the report said.

As a result, key physical infrastructures, such as air traffic control and federal taxation systems, are built on fragile software or software that is unreliable, lacks security, has performance lapses, contains errors, and is difficult to upgrade, the report said.

"The [Federal Aviation Administration] and [Internal Revenue Service] systems have proved to be amazingly difficult to update. Large telecommunications networks have crashed and banks have been robbed electronically," the report said. "Even after large expensive testing efforts, commercial software is shipped known to be filled with errors."

The risks resulting from fast growth and increasing complexity also apply to the networks and computer-based services that a growing number of people are using to communicate, work, and be entertained, the committee said.

The nation's dependence on such an "information infrastructure" is increasing daily, but the technology used today to support that infrastructure will not be able to handle the number of users, diversity of services, and service demands that will come in future, the report said.

"We cannot safely extend current technology to new networks that are orders of magnitude more complex and that can carry many more kinds of traffic, including voice, with the kind of quality and reliability represented by today's telephony systems," the report said.

In the area of high-end computing, the committee found that powerful computers have laid the foundation for societal advances such as designing cancer-fighting drugs and understanding the causes of pollution. As such, the continued advancement of high-end computing will be needed in areas it has not touched in the past, such as supporting large World Wide Web sites and simulating natural crises, the report said.

One member of the committee contacted for comment on the draft report said today that an interim report was called for because some "critical areas" of concern need to be illuminated now.

The committee work has led to "a productive and illuminating discussion" that will continue as the group works toward a more finalized report, said member David Farber, a professor of telecommunications systems at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The committee has brought together a range of people who often sit on different sides of the issues, and is also the first such advisory group at such a high level of federal government charged with examining just IT issues.

"It does reflect the fact that IT is a large part of the country's economy and is what many people believe has kept us out of recessions," Farber said.

And while the committee's findings are not particularly new for people in the IT field, because the advisory committee will report to the president, its study is likely to affect administrative policy.

"This has more visibility than a bunch of technical people complaining," Farber said.

Information on the forthcoming report can be seen at http://www.hpcc.gov.

Some of the Presidential Advisory Committee recommendations include the following.

Software:

  • Make fundamental software research an absolute priority.
  • Fund more fundamental research in software development methods and component technologies.
  • Sponsor a national library of software components.
  • Make software research a substantive component of every major IT research initiative.
  • Support fundamental research in human-computer interfaces and interaction.
  • Scalable information infrastructure:
  • Increase funding in research and development of core software and communications technologies aimed directly at the challenge of scaling the information infrastructure.
  • Expand the next-generation Internet test beds to include industry partnerships in order to foster the rapid commercialization and deployment of enabling technologies.

High-end computing:

  • Fund research into innovative computing technologies and architectures.
  • Fund research and development on software for improving the performance of high-end computing.
  • Drive high-end computing research by establishing the goal of attaining sustained petaops/petaflops on real applications by 2010.
  • Fund the acquisition of the most powerful high-end computing systems to support science and engineering research.
  • Expand the Federal High End Computing and Computation (HECC) program to include all of the major elements of the U.S. government's investment in high-end computing.

Rob Guth is a correspondent in the Tokyo bureau of the IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate. Nancy Weil, a Boston correspondent with the IDG News Service contributed to this report.
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