UI waiting to learn whether fastest computer headed their way

By The Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – University of Illinois officials said they still don’t know if the school will be home to a new supercomputer intended to be the world’s fastest, despite a news report saying the decision had been made.

The New York Times reported Monday that a document briefly and mistakenly posted on a federal government Web site indicated the National Science Foundation will award IBM a $200 million contract to build the computer at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

NCSA and other supercomputing centers and state governments submitted proposals to the foundation last year to host the planned supercomputer.

The supercomputer will be the first capable of performing a thousand trillion mathematical operations a second, a coveted standard for computational speed known as a petaflop.

“What we’ve been told is that decision would be forthcoming later in the summer,” NCSA spokeswoman Trish Barker said. “Mid- to late September is the time frame that’s been mentioned.”

The Times report apparently relied on an item in an agenda of things to be considered during meetings this week by the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation’s governing board, Barker said.

The agenda posted on the board’s Web site on Tuesday included two items on “petascale” supercomputing, but no mention of the eventual location of the new supercomputer. Those items indicate they were to be considered Monday behind closed doors.

The board is meeting this week and is expected to recommend a site for the new supercomputer to the foundation, which will make the ultimate decision, board spokeswoman Ann Ferrante said.

Supercomputers are series of computers linked together to provide greater processing power than any one machine can.

While many of the fastest are used at national laboratories for defense work, those found at universities and other public institutions attract researchers who need to simulate complex problems.

Researchers are now using the NCSA’s computers in Urbana, Ill., to study everything from whether tiny flaws in silicon crystals can be used to store electronic data to the factors that influence entrepreneurial success.

NCSA’s fastest supercomputer, known as Abe, can perform 89 trillion operations a second, making it the world’s eighth-fastest.

The fastest supercomputer is IBM’s Blue Gene/L at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It’s capable of up to 360 trillion operations a second, or 360 teraflops. That’s about a third as fast as the new computer planned by the National Science Foundation.

Fastest, however, is usually a short-lived superlative in the supercomputing world. Scientists in Japan are working on a supercomputer expected to be capable of 10 petaflops by 2011, according to the Times article.