- Export controls on high-performance computers probably wouldn't stop someone from designing a nuclear weapon.
But they do have the potential to prevent a company from deploying a powerful multiprocessor system that could rapidly handle large volumes of financial transactions at an overseas business unit.
That reality led federal officials, including the US General Accounting Office, to conclude earlier this month that export controls on high-performance computers are ineffective. But the controls remain in place, even though the Clinton administration significantly relaxed them in one of its final acts.
And technology industry officials claim that the export restrictions remain a threat to overseas installations of what is starting to become a relatively common business system: a server using 32 or more processors. The chief obstacle, they assert, is the government's continued use of the MTOPS (millions of theoretical operations per second) rating as a way to determine which computers can be easily shipped to other countries.
"MTOPS simply is not a valid parameter anymore," says Dan Hoydysh, director of trade and public policy at Unisys and co-chairman of the Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports, at a briefing that was held in Washington last week on the export issue. The Washington-based coalition represents 10 computer makers and five IT industry trade group.
Hoydysh and other coalition members said they want Congress to scrap MTOPS as a standard export-control measurement. Instead, they proposed that the government focus on controlling distribution of true supercomputers and advanced military-specific applications.
"What we've got to do is come to grips with the fact that the current system doesn't work," says Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade association in Washington that includes a mix of vendors plus companies such as Corning and Eastman among its members.
Before leaving office last Saturday, the Clinton administration revised export control regulations to allow more powerful computers to be shipped to so-called Tier 3 nations such as India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam and countries in the Middle East. It also put Brazil, South Africa, Thailand and a large group of other countries on the same level as Western Europe, Japan and Canada, which face virtually no export controls.
Officials in the administration say hardware performance improvements and the development of clustering and multiprocessing technologies are making the government's export-control policies ineffective. The new limits - which will take effect March 20 unless Congress decides otherwise as part of a review process - raise processing power limits from 28,000 MTOPS to 85,000 MTOPS. But even the new level is expected to be quickly outdated by Intel's 64-bit Itanium processors, which are due in the third quarter.
A Pentium III system with 32 700-MHz chips has a performance rating of about 45,000 MTOPS, Hoydysh says. But a 32-processor Itanium machine will likely have a throughput of 190,000 to 200,000 MTOPS, he adds. That could mean the export control limits will have to be raised again as early as this summer, according to Hoydysh and other industry officials.
The export controls were put in place eight years ago in an attempt to keep high-powered computers out of the hands of US adversaries. But ironically, those kinds of systems may not be needed to design weapons of mass destruction. Jim Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research group in Washington, says that all of the nuclear weapons in the US arsenal were designed on systems with performance of less than 1000 MTOPS.
Export controls can't prevent people from stringing together processors to create powerful systems, Lewis says, adding that the better solution for the government would be to ensure that the US maintains a lead in technology. "Do you win a race by running faster or by tripping your opponent?," Lewis says. "The answer is by running faster."
In a related matter, US Senator Phil Gramm (Republican - Texas), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, last week introduced a bill that would revise the Export Administration Act to exempt high-performance laptops and other mass-market technology from any controls.
"If you can buy it at Radio Shack, so can anybody else," Gramm says. But that measure doesn't address the export controls on more advanced computers used by businesses.