High-tech boost--or put-down? Some say U.S. agency hurts computer firms

April 28, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

The crown jewel of the University of Maryland's supercomputing center is the "Connection Machine," a sleek, state-of-the-art supercomputer capable of executing close to a billion calculations per second.

Researchers from as far away as Tel Aviv, Israel, are using the supercomputer, manufactured by Thinking Machines Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., for molecular modeling, environmental simulation and numerical analysis, to name just a few projects.

If the university had bought the Connection Machine, or one like it, on the open market, the two-unit system would have cost about $2.5 million, estimates Larry Davis, director of the university's supercomputing center.

But the university has contracts with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department's research and development arm, to work on projects. So the university was able to buy its Connection Machine through DARPA for about $250,000. As an added bonus, DARPA threw in two years worth of free maintenance, saving the university another $300,000.

With DARPA offering state-of-the-art equipment at fire-sale prices, Mr. Davis said there is little reason for him to buy commercially.

"No way," says Mr. Davis. Supercomputers are "too expensive. We would never buy from anybody but DARPA."

DARPA's approach to spreading the gospel on high-performance computing may be beneficial to universities and to the scientific community at large. The agency can champion new, high-risk technologies that industry might otherwise shy away from because their profitability is uncertain.

DARPA, for example, has been credited for pioneering efforts in creating "stealth" anti-radar and UNIX computer software technologies. Both have contributed greatly to U.S. defense efforts.

But critics say some DARPA practices are stifling competition in an industry still in its infancy. They fear that DARPA is turning into a kingmaker for a few select companies that specialize in making high-performance supercomputers known as "massively parallel processing" systems (MPP).

Left unchecked, critics say, such practices could seriously damage the viability of the market.

"Where it becomes touchy is when DARPA is no longer stimulating a market but impacting the overall competitive structure of the market," said Jeffrey Kalb, president of MasPar Computer of Sunnyvale, Calif., a manufacturer of MPP systems. "I think we've at least reached that point."

Repeated attempts to interview DARPA officials were unsuccessful. Stephen Squires, head of the unit in charge of DARPA's MPP effort, agreed to an interview but failed to answer or return repeated telephone calls last week.

At issue is DARPA's increasingly active role in promoting the companies it has chosen to advance the MPP concept. That short list currently includes Thinking Machines and Beaverton, Ore.-based Intel Scientific Computers, a division of Intel Corp.

DARPA is supposed to promote technologies -- not vendors. But critics say some DARPA practices suggest the agency is doing otherwise. Those practices include:

* Giving away millions of dollars in DARPA-funded machines, upgrades and maintenance for little or no cost to universities and research labs, the prime market for MPP systems.

* Lobbying would-be commercial customers to choose DARPA-endorsed machines over those offered by commercial vendors.

* Providing sales leads to representatives of DARPA-funded companies.

* Holding user conferences to stimulate interest in DARPA-funded machines to the exclusion of similar machines sold by competitors. Invitees include people from DARPA as well as non-DARPA-funded research universities and labs.

The irony is that these practices may stifle the very market that DARPA is trying so hard to stimulate.

All sides agree that DARPA has done a good job in keeping America ahead in the global technology race -- a feat considering that DARPA has a relatively small staff and limited funding.

DARPA, which has about 140 employees, has an annual budget of about $1 billion, slightly more than the cost of a single B-2 stealth bomber. DARPA has spent about $130 million a year on high-performance computing over the past several years, and its spending could rise to $238 million next year if President Bush's 1992 budget is approved.

DARPA was one of several government agencies to recognize early on that the MPP technology could help meet America's seemingly insatiable appetite for processing power -- at far less cost.

Some of the pioneering efforts into MPP technologies, at the California Institute of Technology, were funded by DARPA. Since then, about a dozen companies specializing in MPP systems have sprung up.

But interviews with more than two dozen computer scientists, government researchers and industry experts suggest DARPA may be unduly influencing the market it helped create. Some worry DARPA may wind up inadvertently squelching, instead of stimulating, the very market it has tried to foster.

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