U.S. Supercomputer Makers Challenge Export Proposal

By John Markoff
The New York Times

February 15, 1990

United States manufacturers of the most powerful computers are challenging a Commerce Department proposal to relax regulations on exporting the machines. The manufacturers say the proposed change does not go far enough.

Under the new proposal, makers of the powerful computers, known as supercomputers, would have to meet special Federal requirements to export machines with speeds of 300 million floating point operations, or calculations, per second to any of 23 United States allies.

For most other countries, with the exception of Warsaw Pact nations, supercomputers rated at 150 million calculations per second would have to meet the requirements. The requirements could include inspections after delivery abroad, restrictions on the use of certain kinds of software, agreements by foreign governments to comply with restrictions on use, and audits of compliance.

Export License Would Be Needed

The proposal requires exporters of a computer with a speed of more than 100 million floating point operations per second (also known as megaflops) to obtain an export license. Supercomputers would remain embargoed to Warsaw Pact countries.

The export of supercomputers troubles many experts concerned that the machines will be used to speed the design of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other arms.

In the past, supercomputer exports have been controlled by a complex licensing process on a case-by-case basis. The threshold for defining a supercomputer had been set at speeds above 100 million floating point operations.

Industry executives argued that the new Commerce Department definition failed to account for rapid changes in technology. They said that by the end of this year even some desktop computers will fall under the proposed requirements.

''I.B.M.'s strong objection to the 100-megaflops definition is that it would classify most of our commercial large-scale processors as supercomputers,'' said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, I.B.M.'s assistant general manager for the mainframe computer division.

Alternate Plan Supported

I.B.M. executives and other industry officials have said they support an alternative proposal of the American Electronics Association that suggests that the definition of a supercomputer falling under the rules be calculated by averaging the peak performance of the two most powerful commercially available machines in the world - a figure that could well reach into the thousands of megaflops, as opposed to the hundreds.

Systems sold to Western industrial countries with more than 25 percent of the peak number would require a security plan. For countries outside the Western industrial world or those not signatories of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, a security plan would be needed for all machines whose performance exceeds 10 percent of the average.

The Commerce Department said it would hold a 45-day period for public comment before it issued a final rule. It held public hearings in Dallas on Monday and Santa Clara, Calif., yesterday. Hearings will be held in Boston tomorrow and in Minneapolis on Monday.

Copyright 1990 The New York Times Company