Cray Inc. replacing IBM to build UI supercomputer

Cray Inc. replacing IBM to build UI supercomputer

URBANA — A Cray Inc. machine will be the new supercomputer for the University of Illinois' Blue Waters project.

The Seattle-based company will build the world-class peta-scale supercomputer that IBM was originally chosen to build.

The Cray contract is for $188 million. It will be announced today (Monday, Nov. 14) at Seattle's International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis.

The National Science Foundation and the UI selected the supercomputer pioneer only three months after they mutually announced the end of Big Blue's involvement in the Blue Waters sustained petaflop — one quadrillion floating-point operations per second — machine.

Cray's new XK6 "Titan" parallel technology will be part of the design. It's already to be used in Cray's supercomputer at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with expected peak speeds of between 10 and 20 petaflops.

Cray was the original vendor for the UI National Center for Supercomputing Applications in its early years in the 1980s.

Cray and UI officials said parts will be shipped before the end of the year, and the supercomputer — the biggest ever from Seattle-based Cray — could be fully operational next summer.

The total cost of the project will still be about $310 million, the target for the IBM model before expenses began to increase, and will probably still be named Blue Waters for the innovative water-cooling system already in place in Champaign, on the south edge of the campus.

In a teleconference, Peter Ungaro, Cray's president and chief executive officer, and Thom Dunning, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, said they were happy to "re-energize" a relationship that goes back 30 years to Cray's and NCSA's origins.

Ungaro, who became Cray's president in March 2005 and CEO in August 2005, said the new machine will be a hybrid of XK6 and slightly earlier XE6 components.

"Blue Waters will be composed of more than 235 Cray XE6 cabinets based on the recently announced (Advanced Micro Devices) Opteron 6200 Series processor (formerly code-named "Interlagos") and more than 30 cabinets of a future version of the recently announced Cray XK6 supercomputer with NVIDIA Tesla GPU computing capability incorporated into a single, powerful hybrid supercomputer. These Cray XK nodes will further increase the measured sustained performance on real science problems," a press release said.

Dunning said he was pleased to partner with Cray "because it is one company really focused on supercomputing."

He said the planning process has been unusual in that the people who are writing the research applications have a direct role in shaping the future machine.

"The NSF made awards to 25 teams of scientists for this project. We spent a lot of time talking to them," he said.

Dunning said research groups are looking at everything from "how viruses get inside cells so they can change DNA machinery to reproduce themselves, all the way to how severe storms, especially tornadoes, form, to studying earthquakes' effects on skyscrapers, freeways and bridges."

While speed is an important part of the design, Ungaro and Dunning said the new supercomputer is uniquely able to handle "multidimensional" tasks.

"We decided Cray's system fit our criteria extremely well," Dunning said. "It not only provides the computing that researchers need right now, but will be able to handle the problems of the future."

Ungaro said the new supercomputer is constructed to be adapted to new challenges.

The UI and NSF began having difficulties with IBM at least as early as December 2010, according to documents obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.

More than three dozen changes, most suggested by IBM, would have delayed the Blue Waters project by a year, the UI argued in the documents, as well as increased its costs.

IBM removed its Power 7 servers and repaid the project $30 million shortly after the August announcement.