Climbing The Grid To Growth

North Carolina is betting grid computing can speed research and development and lower costs for key state industries.

May 14, 2004

5 Min Read
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North Carolina, a state of just 8 million people, has one of the nation's largest high-tech concentrations, but it has a poor record for commercializing its inventions. However, that may be about to change.

During the past few months, top computer-science researchers from the University of Illinois, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Sun Microsystems have moved to the Tar Heel State to take advantage of a stream of state and private investment in high-performance computing that's meant to try to reverse some of North Carolina's heavy job losses of the past few years, attract a new wave of investment to Research Triangle Park, and make companies across the state more competitive.

The hope is that North Carolina, whose textile-manufacturing, furniture-making, and tobacco-growing industries suffered large numbers of layoffs over the past decade and whose semiconductor, telecommunications, and drug-development industries have been hard-pressed to make up the difference, can ride new investments in grid computing and other information technologies to speed research and development and lower costs for key industries. The state's moves echo a larger discussion happening across the nation: As computer technology takes over many tasks done by people, how can states keep creating new, high-paying jobs?

"The place North Carolina is trying to go is transforming its traditional economic base--textiles, furniture making, and tobacco--to an economic base for the 21st century," says Dan Reed, former director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. In January, he left that post to accept a $3 million endowed professorship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and start the Renaissance Computing Institute, a university-supported high-performance-computing facility that aims to help the state's ailing manufacturing and booming biotechnology industries innovate faster. "It's an issue for the whole U.S. as we move up the value chain and create wealth from knowledge," he says. "The economic conundrum we face is ensuring there are enough well-paying jobs."

North Carolina's Research Triangle Park is a 16-square-mile high-tech development zone that's home to about 42,000 workers whose employers include Bayer, Cisco Systems, Eli Lilly, the Environmental Protection Agency, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, and Nortel Networks. It's also within about a dozen miles of the state's three major research universities--Duke University, North Carolina State University, and UNC Chapel Hill. But the area is just beginning to rebound from layoffs of about 5,500 employees in the past few years. Meanwhile, North Carolina's traditional manufacturing sector has lost 153,000 jobs in the past three years.Front and center in the state's technical redevelopment effort is a new "North Carolina state grid," due to come online this month. The grid is an $8 million effort to move supercomputers that had languished in an underutilized state facility onto university campuses, where they'll be linked by grid-computing software and made available over a high-speed network to academic and industrial researchers. MCNC, a nonprofit economic development company formed by the state in 1980, is financing the effort, along with technology donations from IBM, Cisco, and Sun. Two weeks ago, MCNC hired Wolfgang Gentzsch, a former Sun executive for grid computing and well-known supercomputing researcher in Germany, to head the effort. His hiring is the latest in a string of personnel moves and technology investments that could reinvigorate the area.

This week, Alan Blatecky, who was executive research director at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and who made early grid-computing investments while at the National Science Foundation, will join Reed's Renaissance Computing Institute as deputy director. In December, a consortium of 60 universities in the Southeast reached a deal with AT&T to use 8,000 miles of dark optical fiber free of charge to develop a research network for academics. And in March, the Research Triangle Park Foundation, which runs the development zone, said it would spend $5 million to create 100,000 jobs in the region in high-tech, drug research, food science, and nanotechnology over the next five years. The plan was influenced by a 2001 study by Harvard University economist Michael Porter, who concluded that the region suffered from weak commercialization of its inventions and poor collaboration within several industry sectors.

"There's been a lot of angst, heartburn, and discussion about what kinds of things North Carolina might invest in to create new jobs," says David Rizzo, who became CEO of MCNC in 2002 after 13 years at IBM before leaving to found Osprey Systems. Last year, the state commissioned a widely circulated report that concluded that grid computing and related technologies could add $10 billion and 24,000 jobs by 2010.

Rizzo--whose cousin is IBM software chief Steve Mills and whose father is Paul Rizzo, the former IBM vice chairman who helped recruit Lou Gerstner to the company--says the new statewide grid can help attract more research investment to the state, provide computing power for resource-hungry researchers in life sciences and other fields, and serve as a recruiting tool for skilled technologists. Last year, MCNC shut down a state-financed supercomputing center that was losing $5 million a year, Rizzo says, and moved the center's IBM and Silicon Graphics Inc. computers closer to their users at UNC and North Carolina State.

Three additional supercomputer clusters, whose power will be shared over an existing high-speed research and educational network that connects 180 labs and institutions, are due to come online this month at UNC and North Carolina State, with plans for three more by the late summer. MCNC, which lost its state funding in 1999, will pay for the project with proceeds from a $250 million sale of JDS Uniphase stock in 2000, the result of selling a nanotechnology spin-off to Uniphase. Factor in another high-speed network called the National Lambda Rail that runs through Research Triangle Park, and state technology leaders say the grid can make high-powered computing available to more users at lower costs. "They're trying to market supercomputing as a resource, rather than a sleepy little computing center stuck over there on Cornwallis Road," says Gary Shope, VP of the Research Triangle Park Foundation. "They're making supercomputing much more available."0

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