US panel approves supercomputer funding

The U.S. National Science Board approves funding for two supercomputers.

The U.S. National Science Board has authorized funding for two of the world's most powerful supercomputers, one of them capable of petaflop-speed operations.

The National Science Board action allows the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to move forward with the purchase of the systems, but the NSF cannot confirm that IBM will win the contract to build the world's fastest computer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as was reported earlier this week in The New York Times, said Leslie Fink, an NSF spokeswoman.

The Times reported that documents inadvertently published on NSF's Web site identified IBM as the leading candidate to build a supercomputer called Blue Waters, which would be about 500 times more powerful than most current supercomputers. Blue Waters is expected to go live in 2011, and the National Science Board's decision Wednesday approves funding of US$208 million over four and a half years.

Blue Waters is expected to be able to make arithmetic calculations at a sustained rate in excess of 1,000-trillion operations per second, or a petaflop per second.

"Working at the frontiers of knowledge is increasing the demand for powerful cyberinfrastructure," NSF Deputy Director Kathy Olsen, said in a statement. The petaflop computer will give U.S. scientists and engineers "access to unprecedented petascale computing resources that will allow them to ask and answer complex questions we haven't even dreamed of."

Parts of contract proposals are still confidential, Fink said. Asked about IBM's proposal, she said: "We're not at liberty to confirm that at this point."

An IBM spokesman also declined to comment on the supercomputer contract when contacted earlier this week."It's all rumors and speculation at this point," said IBM's Michael Corrado. "We don't comment on rumors."

The National Science Board, which oversees NSF policies, also approved funding for a second, smaller supercomputer, intended to bridge a gap between current high-performance computers and more advanced petascale systems under development. The $65 million, five-year project will be located at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Joint Institute for Computational Science.

It would have a peak performance of just under one petaflop, almost four times the capacity of the current NSF-supported Teragrid, the world's largest and most powerful distributed computing system for open scientific research. The Teragrid currently supports more than 1,000 projects and more than 4,000 U.S. researchers.

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