Bill Clinton relaxes supercomputer exports

PC clusters make regs pointless

The White House announced Wednesday that it would ease export restrictions on high-speed supercomputers, expanding the list of nations to which US companies can ship powerful systems without obtaining prior approval from the Department of Commerce.

Because supercomputers are vital to nuclear weapons design and other military applications, export restriction were crafted during the cold war era to keep heavy silicon out of the hands of rogue nations or potential adversaries. But as processing power of common desktop machines skyrocketed each year, the government struggled to keep pace, and industry became frustrated by the regulatory fetters on international sales.

Not surprisingly, industry sources welcomed Wednesday's announcement. "We applaud the Clinton Administration's ability to keep government regulations in line with the rapid pace of technological change," IBM chief Lou Gerstner said in a statement. "We have worked successfully with them over the past eight years to strike the appropriate balance between protecting our nation's national security and promoting its economic interests."

The new rules will eliminate the need for companies to obtain individual licenses before shipping supercomputers to Lithuania, South and Central America, South Korea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and most of Africa. Seven terrorist-supporting states remain blacklisted entirely. Other regions remain restricted, including India, Pakistan and the former Soviet Union, but the ceiling on processing power has been raised: licensing requirements will only kick-in for computers that can perform at least 85,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), up from the old limit of 28,000 MTOPS.

This seemingly straightforward calculus becomes fuzzy when you consider that a purchaser can create their own 85,000 MTOPS machine by networking together eighty-five 1000 MTOPS computers, or approximately fifty Pentium III boxes. The open source Beowulf Project puts Linux-based home brew supercomputing within reach of even the most impoverished would-be villain.

The Administration acknowledged that reality in Wednesday's announcement, calling the ease of clustering computers "the single most important challenge to the ability to effectively control computer hardware." After a two-year study the White House concluded that efforts to control hardware are largely futile.

The White House "would prefer to remove most controls on computer hardware exports," while restricting software proliferation, but chose to leave that decision for the incoming Bush Administration.

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