Supercomputers for Southside

Now this gets my attention! As a follow-up to my recent post, “The Brutal Facts Facing Southside and Southwest Virginia,” let me bring to your attention today’s press release from the governor’s office announcing the creation of a Center for Applied High Performance Computing in Danville.

Noblis, a non-profit scientific organization, and Cray, Inc., a manufacturer of supercomputers, will invest $2.5 million to establish the center. The mission will be to promote development of high-performance applications to solve “problems of national importance,” help small businesses innovate using high-performance computing applications, and train the next generation of developers, among other goals.

At least for a time, the Center will be the only non-federal lab or university to house a next-generation Cray XMT. “This kind of high-performance technology research center is truly transformational for the City of Danville and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Gov. Bob McDonnell.

On the plus side, this is exactly the kind of transformational initiative Southside Virginia needs to pole vault out of its manufacturing-centric mill town economy to a Knowledge Economy economic base. So, congratulations to Danville.

On the other hand, one cannot help but question the economics of this initiative. The $2.5 million in private investment will be matched by $4 million in public investment — $1 million from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund and $3 million from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Fund. When $1 of public investment leverages less than $1 in private investment, the state is not getting much of a return on its investment.

A question: Who will staff this center? Is anyone in Southside Virginia trained to operate the Cray XMT supercomputer? Does anyone have the know-how to write the equations and functions required to solve “complex national problems”? Or will that talent have to be imported from outside the region? Assuming that the Center is to serve as the nucleus of a growing industry, does Danville have what it takes to recruit and retain high-caliber IT talent?

I worry that this initiative may never become self supporting and will require a steady transfusion of outside funding. I hope I’m wrong. There’s nothing I would like more to see than Danville defying the odds and transforming itself into a mini-technology center.


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