IBM Pulls the Plug on Blue Waters

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An exterior view of the National Petascale Computing Facility where the Blue Waters Supercomputer was scheduled to reside.

In a surprise statement Saturday, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ (NCSA) and IBM jointly announced that IBM has terminated its contract with the University of Illinois to provide the supercomputer for the NCSA’s  Blue Waters project.

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

Too Complex

The reason for shutting down the project, according to NCSA, was that the technology developed by IBM was too complex and required significantly more financial and technical support by IBM then envisioned.  The two parties tried to workout a solution, but could not agree on a plan to move the project forward.

To close out IBM’s participation in the project they will be returning money received to date and NCSA will return equipment delivered by IBM.  The Register points out that this equates to three racks of equipment and $30 million returned to NCSA.

Awesome Power, Awesome Efficiency

The powerful Blue Waters was to be housed in the equally impressive NPCF (National Petascale Computing Facility), which was unveiled in 2010 at NCSA’s second biennial Workshop: HPC Data Centers. The 88,000 square foot facility would hold 114 Blue Waters racks for a total performance of more than one sustained petaflop.

The NPCF was planned around the needs of Blue Waters, where a single rack would draw 175kW and be 100 percent water cooled.  The extreme density was achieved on IBM’s Power 7 architecture, coupled with water cooling that gave it an order of magnitude lower unit thermal resistance and 3500x heat carrying capacity.

NPCF’s Future

With the termination of the contract, NCSA, IBM and the University of Illinois say they will “explore other opportunities” to continue the project.  At the time of the 2010 NPCF open house there were already some other systems installed in the new data center, including a Cray.  NCSA lists SGI and Dell computational resources available as well as their hierarchical archival storage system.

On the June 2011 Top 500 list NCSA had a Dell PowerEdge system ranked 145. IBM made the tough call on finances for Blue Waters, but still leads the pack with 212 supercomputers on the June 2011 Top500 list.

With a scientific community ready to put its programs to use on a petaflop system and a facility still poised to take on incredibly dense power and cooling requirements, the University and NCSA are most likely shopping for plan B.  The interesting part will be taking advantage of a facility that has water cooling set to be delivered to the cabinet and placing a solution in the facility that will best optimize the infrastructure.  IBM could still pull through with an alternative system, but SGI, Cray, HP, Dell and others are surely available options as well.

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