EU launches $1.2B supercomputing plan, without U.K.

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(Bloomberg) -- The European Union will spend one billion euros ($1.2 billion) to try to catch up to China, the U.S. and Japan in supercomputing, the European Commission said Thursday.

But as the initiative launches, uncertainty over Brexit is creating anxiety among British computer scientists that the U.K. may miss out on opportunities from the plan.

The goal of the project is for Europe to acquire two "world-class" supercomputers, capable of at least a hundred million billion calculations per second, and at least two mid-range systems, capable of tens of millions of billions of calculations per second, by 2020. The EuroHPC initiative was launched in March last year, with funding specifics unveiled today.

These machines are stepping stones toward the ultimate goal of the effort, which is to create a next generation "exascale" system -- capable of performing at least one billion billion mathematical calculations per second -- "based on EU technology" by 2022.

The Commission called the initiative "crucial for the EU’s competitiveness and independence in the data economy."

The EU itself will provide 486 million euros for the project by 2020, with a similar amount coming from individual members states and "associated countries" that sign up for the project. The Commission said private entities, such as companies, could also join the effort and provide "in kind contributions."

Since it was launched in March last year, 13 countries have formally signed up: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland.

U.K. Absence

The U.K. has not formally joined the project so far and some British computer scientists worry that the U.K. will miss out on the potential benefits of the project due to Brexit.

Alastair Clifton, a spokesman for the U.K.’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the department that administers the British government’s science budget, declined to say why the U.K. had not yet signed the project’s formal declaration.

While not yet a signatory, Clifton said the U.K., had been "taking an active part in development of it and are working on future plans of it." He said that whether the U.K. would become a signatory in the future "is an open question."

"Brexit has thrown a lot of uncertainty around the U.K.’s participation and it is really unfortunate and causing delay and confusion," Simon McIntosh-Smith, a professor specializing in high-performance computing at the University of Bristol, said.

Currently, the top two fastest supercomputers are in China, with the U.S. and Japan dominating the most of the rest of the top 10.

Corporate Computing

European companies, from carmakers like Daimler AG to aerospace giants such as Airbus SE and pharmaceutical firms like GlaxoSmithKline Plc, as well as government departments, particularly weather agencies, increasingly have to rent computing time on supercomputers located in the U.S. or Japan. The E.U. is concerned that doing so increases the chances that sensitive information -- including commercial trade secrets and sensitive personal data -- could leak. What’s more, in the event of a political crisis, Europe’s access to these supercomputers might be cut off, experts warn.

They point to the situation in China, which was forced to develop its own high-performance computing processors after its access to ones from American companies was cut off by the U.S. government.

"It is a tough race and today the EU is lagging behind," Andrus Ansip, the European Commission’s vice president for the digital single market, said in a statement. "We want to give European researchers and companies world-leading supercomputer capacity by 2020."

But the costs involved are steep: today’s fastest supercomputers cost between $50 million to $250 million to design and assemble and several million more per year to run. And developers are targeting a new generation of exaflop systems -- able to perform at least one billion billion floating point operations per second -- with costs likely to be as much as $500 million per supercomputer.

Supercomputing hardware expertise in Europe is mostly tied to large U.S. or Japanese companies, McIntosh-Smith said, with only one company -- Atos SE’s Bull division -- able to design a full system.

Mark Parsons, director of the EPPC, a supercomputing center at the University of Edinburgh, said it would make far more sense for the U.K. to work with other European countries to build supercomputers than to try to spend the money to do so on its own.

Parsons said a lot would depend on whether the U.K. is considered an "associated country" of the EU post-Brexit, much as Switzerland and Norway are, or a "third country" like Canada.

"Associated countries can participate in the research programs just like a member state," Parsons said. Research teams from "third countries," by contrast, can bid to work on EU science projects but cannot receive any EU funding.

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