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8/9/2011
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IBM, NCSA Scrap Petaflop Supercomputer Plans

Contract to build a 1-petaflop system for the Blue Waters project terminated, with IBM citing unexpected costs.

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IBM and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) have cancelled plans to build a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded supercomputer due to unexpected financial and technical costs, they said.

Several days ago IBM terminated its $208 million contract with the University of Illinois to provide a 1 petaflop, 200,000 processor-core supercomputer based on its Power7 processor for the Blue Waters project. NCSA is a part of the university.

IBM's work was expected to be completed by next year and the finished project was meant to be one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

"The innovative technology that IBM ultimately developed was more complex and required significantly increased financial and technical support by IBM beyond its original expectations," according to a joint statement by the partners on the project. "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.

Under the terms of the contract, IBM will return the money it received to date to build the supercomputer and the NCSA, in turn, will return the equipment IBM delivered. The two added that the NCSA is working with the NSF to continue the project and ultimately reach its goal, and that "IBM, the University of Illinois, and NCSA will explore other opportunities" to continue the relationship developed during the Blue Waters project.

Petaflop-scale supercomputers have only recently begun to emerge, but are becoming more commonplace. In an annually published list of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, for the first time every system in the top 10 achieved petaflop performance. "Flop" stands for floating-point operations per second, and a petaflop computer can perform a thousand trillion flops.

The U.S. federal government operates five of the top 10 petaflop-scale systems on the list, including a Department of Energy Cray system at the Oak Ridge Laboratory and an SGI system at the NASA Ames Research Center.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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