The National Science Foundation is planning to award IBM a contract to build the world’s fastest supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to documents that were accidentally placed on a federal government website for a short time last week.
The decision to build the machine, which will cost $200 million (Rs810 crore) to build and may cost more than $400 million during its five-year lifetime, is already proving to be controversial.
The award has been eagerly pursued by a number of supercomputer centres and state governments. Word of the decision to award the contract to IBM to build a production version of a computer that is now intended for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has created widespread concern in the past week among some scientists involved in designing and building the nation’s high-performance computers.
The new computer is to be the first supercomputer capable of 1,000 trillion mathematical operations a second—a computing benchmark known as a petaflop. Placing it in Illinois has led to concern in California and Pennsylvania, whose labs also bid on the contract.
“This will be a rather special machine,” said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee, who is one of the researchers who has helped rank the world’s fastest supercomputers.
The decision must be ratified by the National Science Board, which was scheduled to meet to discuss the decision on Monday. Calls during the weekend to officials at the National Science Foundation, a federal government agency, were not returned.
Several government supercomputing scientists said they were concerned that the decision might raise questions about impartiality and political influence. “The process needs to be above all suspicion,” said Horst D. Simon, associate laboratory director for computing sciences at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.