Selling the Rope to Hang Us

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-01-14 Print this article Print

I can't carry a penknife on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but I can sell a supercomputer to Pakistan or the Ukraine. Welcome to 2002.

I cant carry a penknife on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but I can sell a supercomputer to Pakistan or the Ukraine. Welcome to 2002.

In March 1999, lobbyists for industry trade groups were hoping to lift what was then the ceiling of 10 billion TOPs, or theoretical operations per second, for computer sales to Tier 2 countries (those posing a relatively low risk that the computers would be used to develop weapons—for example, Argentina).

As of this month, however, U.S. computer makers can sell much more powerful machines to even Tier 3 countries ("posing proliferation or other security risks," in the elegant phrase of the U.S. Bureau of Export Administration—including Israel, as well as my opening examples). The presidents order elevates the threshold of review to ... wait for it ... 190 billion TOPs.

A factor of 19 in 34 months: Thats doubling every eight months, more than twice the pace of Moores Law. And the rationale for this is ... what? If anything, the growing use of Beowulf clusters ( should slow the rate at which we raise the threshold: A given computer building block can now be combined much more readily to yield large multiples of that units power.

No, I dont really think that the government should limit U.S. IT exports to four-function calculators. Im challenging the idea that raw computational speed is a good measure of IT performance. If I have Mathematica and all you have is Excel, my oldest Pentium laptop and I will fly star ships before your Pentium 4 workstation can design a 747. Software matters. Development productivity matters.

Moores Law quantifies the power per dollar of input, not the ROI of the output. Imagine that next years hardware would cost at least as much as this years. How would it affect your thinking about application development, use of bandwidth and other resource trade-offs?

Anyone can do more with more. Is it possible that you can leap ahead of the pack by doing it with less?

Tell me whats too dangerous to sell at

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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