VIRGINIA BEACH -- Four years ago, a handful of local visionaries set a goal of building in Hampton Roads a network of supercomputers. Their aim: Pool the high-powered electronic resources of military, academic and business users to develop new products and services and, hopefully, add some jobs to the region's growing high-tech sector.
It was, to a large degree, putting the cart before the horse. There simply wasn't much supercomputing going on in Hampton Roads -- and much of what was being done was clandestine, for the military and the nation's spy apparatus.
Later this month, that may begin to change. On March 31, the Navy plans to open a new supercomputer facility at its base at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach. While it was designed primarily for the highly classified testing of Navy combat systems, the service plans to make its computing power available to others, including businesses, for non-classified uses.
Added to a powerful computer purchased by Old Dominion University last year, officials involved in the effort hope they have built the base for a virtual network of supercomputers in Hampton Roads.
"We could effectively build a supercomputing center that isn't housed in one building," but exists through the data pipelines that connect them, said John Henson, a high-performance computing analyst for Virginia Beach-based defense contractor AMSEC LLC. His company, partly owned by Newport News Shipbuilding, consults with the Navy on the Dam Neck project.
Besides the Navy and ODU, Henson envisions the NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a physics lab in Newport News, joining in the collaboration. Others with near-supercomputing capabilities, such as Newport News Shipbuilding and the U.S. Joint Forces Command's high-tech war-games center in Suffolk, might also be included.
The new computers at Dam Neck cost more than $1.5 million and will be operated by a unit of the Naval Sea Systems Command. The most powerful of the computers in the facility, a Silicon Graphics Origin 2000, will be capable of performing more than 75 billion calculations per second.
Bill Gallip, a Navy computer specialist, said that kind of processing power will enable those running tests of shipboard weapons systems to dramatically cut the time it takes to analyze the results. What now takes as long as six weeks can be cut to as few as four hours, Gallip believes, as computers speed up the processing of data from the tests of radar, missile-targeting and other systems.
Terry Sellers, high-performance computing program manager for the Dam Neck unit, said the quicker turnaround will enable systems engineers to "get fixes out to the fleet faster." That is important as combat systems are updated ever more rapidly and ships at sea have more and more data links to other ships, aircraft, satellites and ground stations.
Sellers said the Navy hasn't yet determined what it will charge for outside users of the Dam Neck facility. (Supercomputer-usage fees can run into the thousands of dollars per hour.)
Newport News Shipbuilding is expected to be an early user. Networking its computers with those at Dam Neck, it plans to boost its burgeoning efforts in "simulation-based design" of aircraft carriers, Henson said.
Besides shipbuilding, Henson said, the region's shipping businesses -- including railroad giant Norfolk Southern Corp. -- might benefit from tapping into supercomputing. He and others who conceived the supercomputing-network concept four years ago are hoping the Dam Neck facility's opening will spur the formal creation of an organization that would help businesses identify uses for the processing power.
Henson credited Rep. Owen B. Pickett, D-Virginia Beach, for pushing the supercomputer initiative. Virginia Tech and Lockheed Martin Corp. have also expressed interest in the initiative, Navy officials said.
Submitted: Saturday, March 18, 2000 - 1:00am