IBM US Pulls Plug On Federal Supercomputer Project

IBM is pulling out a project to build the world’s fastest supercomputer because of rising costs and complexity

IBM is withdrawing from a project to build the world’s fastest supercomputer, citing costs and complexity issues.

It is reported that IBM terminated the contract for the delivery of a one-petaflop supercomputer in 2012, a project funded by grants of up to $208m (£129m) from the National Science Foundation (NSF). With the funding, IBM had been contracted by the Illinois-based National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), part of the University of Illinois, back in 2007 to build a sustained one-petaflop computer.

Costs And Complexity

The supercomputer was slated for delivery in 2012 as part of the Blue Waters Project, but now it seems Big Blue has opted to walk away from the project.

“Effective August 6, 2011, IBM terminated its contract with the University of Illinois to provide the supercomputer for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Blue Waters project,” said a statement on the NCSA website.

“NCSA is confident that its goal of building a sustained-petascale supercomputer remains achievable in a timely manner,” it added. “NCSA is coordinating with the National Science Foundation to ensure project continuity and that the goals of the project are achieved.”

So why did IBM pull out? After all, it is not as if Big Blue does not have the necessary skills thanks to its mainframe and supercomputer expertise.

“The innovative technology that IBM ultimately developed was more complex and required significantly increased financial and technical support by IBM beyond its original expectations,” said the NCSA statement. “NCSA and IBM worked closely on various proposals to retain IBM’s participation in the project but could not come to a mutually agreed-on plan concerning the path forward.”

IBM will reportedly cough up the cash it has received to date, while the NCSA will return equipment delivered by IBM.

“IBM, the University of Illinois, and NCSA will explore other opportunities to continue the strong working relationship established during the Blue Waters project,” the NCSA added.

Track Record

Of course IBM continues to work on other supercomputer projects. In December 2010 it announced it would build an Intel Xeon-based supercomputer for the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) in Garching, Germany, that will deliver up to three petaflops of performance and will rely on a hot water cooling system – allowing it to consume 40 percent less power than a comparable air-cooled machine, according to Intel.

The system, called SuperMUC, is set to go online in 2012.

And in July last year IBM delivered its first hot water-cooled supercomputer, called Aquasar, to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich). That system uses waste heat from the supercomputer to provide heat to university buildings, reducing the computer’s carbon footprint by 85 percent