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March 27, 2013

U of I supercomputer running after project doubts

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The NSF awarded the contract to the university and IBM, and agreed to provide most of the money, just over $200 million. The university contributed $100 million.

When IBM pulled out, about $160 million had already been spent. And the NSF's deadline to have the computer in the building by the fall of 2012 was still very much in place.

"It was very, very dicey," Kramer said.

Pulling the plug was real possibility, according to Allen Blatecky, director of NSF's Division of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure.

Cray and the university were essentially told, "Convince us" it should continue, Blatecky said. "And they did."

The biggest worry, Bolding said, was whether the Seattle-based company could source the parts required for a computer that fits inside about 300 person-sized cabinets.

"I could name probably 10 things we had to juggle because they were late," Bolding said. "We ran into those over and over and over again, and each time we had to fix it and move on. ... We took huge risks that individual pieces might not be delivered on time."

It worked, and at a profit, Bolding says. The company doesn't break out profit information for any one project, he said, but its annual report for last year showed Cray's revenue — $421 million — and profits were up over 2011. The Blue Waters contract paid the company $188 million.

"It was a major contributor," Bolding said.

There is almost no end to the list of numbers you can use to explain what Blue Waters can do.

At a maximum speed of 11.6 petaflops, it is probably the third-fastest supercomputer in the world behind a Cray-built computer known as Titan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and an IBM machine, Sequoia, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, according to a website that tracks supercomputers, http://www.top500.org .

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