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IBM Abruptly Withdraws From Effort to Build Fastest Academic Supercomputer

IBM is taking back the supercomputer parts it recently delivered to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to build the world’s fastest academic supercomputer and is giving the university its money back. The computer company abruptly terminated its contract with the university on Saturday, just months before the building-size computer was to be completed, saying the plans for the machine became more complex and expensive than originally planned.

The computer, called Blue Waters, was estimated to cost about half a billion dollars, making it one of the most expensive supercomputers ever devoted to academic research. The design hinged on an IBM chip in the company’s Power7 series that is not yet on the market but that the university was given early access to. Now the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which leads the project, is looking to find a way to complete the project with hardware from another computer company.

But these are not parts that can be picked up at Best Buy—when The Chronicle featured the supercomputer a few months ago, officials stressed how unique and powerful the IBM chips were.

Officials for the university say they think they can still finish the computer on time. They have been given a few weeks to submit a Plan B proposal to the National Science Foundation, which put up most of the money for the computer. “We remain committed to delivering a system that is on par with what we had promised,” said John Melchi, senior associate director at the supercomputing center, in an interview Monday.

Mr. Melchi said that IBM’s decision to withdraw from the project came as a “shock.” He said the first university officials heard of any problem with the project, which began in 2007, came in April, when IBM officials shared some concerns that the project had become far more expensive and complex than forecast. Mr. Melchi said university officials tried to work out “various proposals to keep IBM as part of the project,” but no agreement could be reached. “We will give them back the three racks” of computer equipment, he added.

Joanna Brewer, an IBM spkesperson, said that the withdrawal does not mean that IBM was not able to meet the goals of the project. “This is really is an isolated situation with unique circumstance,” she said, though she would not elaborate.

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