Information Technology:

Department of Energy Does Not Effectively Manage Its Supercomputers

RCED-98-208: Published: Jul 17, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 17, 1998.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) acquisition and use of supercomputers, focusing on the: (1) number and cost of the supercomputers DOE acquired in fiscal years (FY) 1994 through 1997 and the number and proposed funding for planned major supercomputer acquisitions in FY 1998 through FY 2000; (2) stated need for DOE's supercomputers, the utilization rates for them, and the potential for facilities to share these resources; and (3) process DOE and its contractors employ to validate the need for additional supercomputers and how that process contrasts with the technology investment process set forth in the Clinger-Cohen Act.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE has about 17 percent of the world's supercomputing capacity and is planning to almost triple its capacity over the next 3 years; (2) during FY 1998 through FY 2000, the Department plans to acquire five major supercomputers at an estimated cost of $257 million; (3) overall, DOE's national laboratories used only about 59 percent of their available supercomputing capacity in 1997 and are missing opportunities to share these resources; (4) the sharing of supercomputers among DOE's laboratories and with DOE-funded off-site users is not generally considered as a way to better use existing resources and to forgo the need to acquire more supercomputers; (5) DOE has not effectively overseen the acquisition and use of supercomputers; (6) the Department lacks an investment strategy and a defined process to ensure that supercomputer acquisitions are fully justified and represent the best use of funds among competing priorities; (7) instead, the Department's existing management processes separate supercomputer acquisitions from the projects they support, and the Department's chief information officer does not oversee the acquisition or use of supercomputers; (8) as a result, new supercomputers are planned and acquired with little departmental oversight, while underutilized capacity already exists within the Department; (9) DOE's proposed implementation of the Clinger-Cohen Act will not improve departmental oversight; (10) in April 1998, the Department outlined its plan to implement a new investment planning and oversight process for information technology in response to the Clinger-Cohen Act; (11) this proposed approach reflects the view of the Department's program offices that supercomputers are research tools rather than information technology investments; (12) this approach may also allow DOE's program offices to continue acquiring supercomputers outside the Department's normal process for complying with the Clinger-Cohen Act; (13) contrary to what is envisioned in the Clinger-Cohen Act, this approach effectively places the vast majority of DOE's information technology resources outside the purview of the Department's chief information officer; (14) in addition, the cost and significance of the supercomputers being developed under the Department's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) warrants that program's being designated as a strategic system subject to the highest level of departmental oversight; and (15) the ASCI program is estimated to cost about $4 billion from FY 1996 through FY 2010.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Action taken is not fully responsive. DOE maintains separate review and approval tracks for administrative and scientific information technology (IT) investments. Consequently, investments in scientific IT systems are reviewed and approved by the same program offices that have a vested interest in acquiring the system. As pointed out in GAO's report, this does not meet the independent review and oversight envisioned in the Clinger-Cohen Act.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should adopt an approach to information technology investment and oversight that meets the criteria set out in the Clinger-Cohen Act. Specifically, under such an approach, DOE should adopt a process for acquiring scientific information technology that: (1) pertains to all Department-funded supercomputers; (2) ensures, prior to providing funds for the acquisition of any new supercomputers, that a written justification clearly demonstrates the need, addresses the benefits of acquiring the subject supercomputer, and allows for meaningful comparison with alternative investments; and (3) includes a laboratory-specific analysis of the utilization of existing supercomputers and an analysis of the potential to share supercomputers with other sites or programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: No action has been taken as yet. DOE disagreed with this recommendation stating that the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) was already receiving high-level oversight. In a subsequent report, GAO found that there were significant problems in the Department's oversight of this program (GAO/RCED-99-195, June 1999).

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should designate the Department's most ambitious acquisitions of supercomputer systems--such as those in the ASCI program--as strategic systems warranting oversight at the highest departmental level.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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