Mt. Vernon Register-News

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March 27, 2013

U of I supercomputer running after project doubts


CHAMPAIGN (AP) — Thom Dunning posed Monday in front of one of the dozens of cabinets that house the new Blue Waters supercomputer, a photographer's lens an uncomfortable couple of feet from his face.

"We've been far more uncomfortable," the director of the National Supercomputing Applications joked, looking at Bill Kramer, who led the project to build what is among the world's fastest computers at the University of Illinois.

They joke now, with the $300 million machine running, but in late in 2011, some feared that the Blue Waters project was circling the drain.

A big, $72 million building sat mostly empty waiting to house Blue Waters as IBM, the original builder, pulled out after essentially concluding it couldn't build and maintain the machine and make money doing it. A new builder had to be found, and fast, to stay within the timeline preferred by the primary financier, the National Science Foundation.

"We knew many of those people — we knew that when they made this announcement that jobs were at risk, their role in national science computing was at risk," said Barry Bolding, vice president of corporate marketing at Cray Inc. The company, known for building supercomputers, took over after IBM backed out.

This week, with about 30 separate groups now using Blue Waters, Dunning, Kramer and all of those people Bolding talked about can finally breathe easy.

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected on Thursday to join Dunning and others from the NCSA, along with people from Cray and the National Science Foundation to proclaim a job well done.

Blue Waters operates much like it was designed to do in 2007.

The plan was to build what would be, at least for a short time, the fastest supercomputer in the world. But more importantly, Blue Waters would also be able to sustain a speed of at least one petaflop — a thousand trillion operations a second, a long-sought speed that makes massive computational projects possible.

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