Friday, May 06, 2005

Export License Required to Log In...

The Commerce Department, in the Federal Register, has proposed some significant changes to the Export Control Rules. The changes seem subtle and arcane (a change of 'and' to 'or', changing country of citizenship to country of birth OR citizenship (whichever is more restrictive), and a couple of "clarifications"). But the implications appear huge, especially the 'and' to 'or' change. Assuming I'm reading this correctly, it sounds like whoever allows a foreign citizen to use a supercomputer (or other export controlled device) has to get an export license and approval from the federal government. And just about every remotely decent cluster qualifies. Will universities be forced to deny access to Chinese graduate students? What if someone had the misfortune to be born in Iran? Or Cuba? It's not too late to submit comments (mail to, with "RIN 0694-AD29" in the subject line), as the comment period extends until May 27th.

For export purposes, a "Supercomputer" is a system capable of 190,000 MTOPS (Million Theoretical Operations Per Second). The definition generally includes clusters of systems, not just individual computers. As the MTOPS is basically any instruction, at the maximum theoretical peak of every functional unit running as efficiently as possible, a normal computer actually scores very high. AMD conveniently publishes theses values, so a Dual Processor Opteron 248 is 15,000 MTOPS. Thus a cluster of only 13 $3000 Sun Fire v20z would be called a supercomputer and subject to US export controls. A computer lab where users can submit jobs to multiple systems simultaneously might also qualify.

Note, I initally saw this elsewhere today (I don't remember where), but I decided to actually look at the proposed rule. Yes, it is this scary.


hoss said...

I hope that the University of Virginny doesn't have any foreign students here on a visa who are allowed to use their multinode cluster...2200 Apple G5 processors is enough to get a few dozen students in trouble.

Seriously - I wouldn't put it past the children in charge to make an immature rewording like this.

Arne Langsetmo said...

I guess I'll need to look for a new job. I was configuring one of our 28+ processor systems (28 Sun blades in 3 19" racks as well as a few miscellaneous processors in the six gigabit Ethernet switches and in the NFS file server) the other day.

Marshall Banana said...

The USA is going to be unrecognizable in five years. Identity papers, radical control over everything - you won't be able to move without permission from a government agency.

That point has been reached, and it is pretty much unavoidable.

Jake said...

What's the big deal? The regulation does not seek to prevent all foreigners from using super-computers, only those that are from "export-controlled" countried. Then you need to get aapproval from the Feds right? And the only change is it makes it harder for an Iranian-born Canadian (for example) to access Super Computers and other clusters. Maybe the definition of export-controlled computers is too tight, but it makes sense to me. If we're going to give a log-in to an Iranian or North Korean (not many of those!) student to a Big Mac class cluster, we should be careful about it. It wouldn't be hard to send that log-in information back to the home country for use by nuclear weapons researchers or somebody else. Not saying I think that all Iranian-born students are out to get us, not even saying that I agree with regulation change. But it seems to be a fairly minor change and it won't stop Canadians or Brits (not sure about Chinese or Indians) from using our most super of super computers.

Steve said...

... said the frog as the water temperature slowly rose yet another degree towards boiling.

Jake said...


Wow, your smarmy off-hand remark has upset my whole world order. I now realize that it was wrong of me to read the actual text and apply critical thinking skills to what I read. Instead, I should have relied on the 2nd- and 3rd-hand comments of others to help me form me an alarmist opinion. Further, I should not have asked further probing questions about whether this is a change of Iranian citizens or whether it only affects Iranian-born Canadian citizens. So I apologize for questioning the impact of this change.

Nick, I honestly apologize for posting the sarcastic comment above on your blog. You obviously spent a good deal of time researching & understanding this issue, even if we don't agree on exactly what its effect may be. But when "boiling frog" comments are directed at me, I feel the need to respond with an equivalent level of maturity.

CathiefromCanada said...

Oh, good.
Top notch university faculty are being driven out of the United States as your research policies are based more and more on politics rather than ethics. Our universities and our students will benefit from this policy too, particularly as the world's most brilliant graduate students from overseas will prefer coming to Canada rather than the US. Thanks, George.

Matt said...


The big deal is that it ignores citizenship. It says that not all citizens from a country are equally, well, citizens from that country.

It makes a Iranian-Canadian a lesser person than a British-Canadian. This is not a distinction our government should make.

This logic would lead one to conclude that an American-Iranian (that is, an American-born Iranian citizen) is less of a threat with respect to export control laws than an Iranian-born Iranian. No right-winger would ever make such an argument, yet they basically are when they propose laws like this.

Choosing to become a citizen of a country is a very significant decision. Someone who opts to be a Canadian citizen, for example, is choosing to not just associate with but also to defend the values of Canada. Clearly, the US government ought to recognise the gravity of that decision and respect the people who have chosen to become Canadians as full-blooded Canadians, just as we recognize our immigrants as full-blooded Americans.

A decision to not fully respect someone's chosen nationality leads to a slippery slope: if we deem Iranian-Canadians to be "less than Canadian," are we going to start deeming Iranian-Americans to be "less than American?"

Jake, the point isn't that it won't affect most people, it's that it might affect any people at all. It is a decision that opposes American values, and a decision that any true American should be disgusted with.

Jake said...


That is a very good point and it is where the focus should be; your viewpoint is quite defensible and it's an important issue.

The problem is, the blogosphere is picking up on "... whoever allows a foreign citizen to use a supercomputer (or other export controlled device) has to get an export license and approval from the federal government," out of context and reacting to that. Thus, most of the commentary is misplaced as people generally focus on the wrong issue.

Soprano said...

Matt wrote:
No right-winger would ever make such an argument, yet they basically are when they propose laws like this.

Important to note that this is not a proposed law, but rather a change in regulations, precisely because regulatory changes often fly way under the radar, unlike laws, which are supposed to be openly debated in Congress (even if open debate is an endangered species, as it seems have become, lately). A radical right-winger who knows that a particular law wouldn't have a prayer if lawmakers had to account to their constituents for their votes can accomplish the same purpose in a less public manner by regulatory changes. This has happened many times in the past four years, e.g., with environmental laws. "Healthy Forests" and "Clean Skies," as bad as they are, will not be nearly so damaging as some of the recent changes in environmental regulations will be--and most of the public hasn't heard a thing about those changes.

bitchywife said...

Great. Now we can be sure that all those furrin' graduate students who are studying, say, geophysics or atmospheric science, can no longer have access to the average cluster.

God forbid one of them uses a large machine to do Blast jobs. Gene sequence comparison is very dangerous stuff. Don't get me started on higher math. I'm sure Al Quaeda had a special until that does nothing but solve differential equations.

I guess it is one way to artificially boost the performance of Real Americans. Except that the US is seriously starting to lag in computational science anyhow. Ooops.

bitchywife said...

Thought I'd point to the list of export controlled countries.

China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia ...

exportcontrolblog said...

The implications of this are pretty darn huge, but there are a couple of misconceptions on this comments page. (1) When it comes to high performance computers, check out - it's people born in the countries listed in Tiers 3 and 4 who would require a license to use such a machine. But the rules vary from technology to technology -- it's not as if there's just one list of countries subject to export controls for everything in the universe. (2) It's fair to say that this change might fly under the radar because it's a regulatory matter and not something Congress is debating, but that's not why it's being handled as a regulation. Congress authorized the Commerce Department to implement the Export Administration Act by issuing regulations when they approved the legislation. If you're interested, I write more about this stuff at