A once mighty supercomputer to be dismantled, sold for parts

New Mexico's Encanto, which five years ago was the third fastest machine in the world, is now practically on the scrap heap.

Question: What happens to aging supercomputers when they are no longer found to be useful?

A little while ago I wondered if the United States, faced with a sagging economy, was set to lose the supercomputer race. Soon after the Energy Department captured the top spot in supercomputing with Titan, China announced it would try to regain the lead with Tianhe-2.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Titan is capable of sustained computing of 20 petaflops, or 20 thousand trillion calculations per second. It will become an invaluable tool in modeling everything from bomb blasts to climate change. But to go beyond that speed, into the exascale range (1,000 petaflops), will cost billions. We may not have the money for that kind of investment at the moment, which is why I wondered if it’s even something we should pursue.

There were lots of comments on that blog, but I just wanted to add one more new piece of information to think about. This week, we heard a cautionary tale from the state of New Mexico, which has spent about $20 million to create and operate Encanto, which was the third fastest computer in the world back in 2008, capable of 127 teraflops.

So what’s in store today for the third fastest computer in the world five years ago? It’s going to be chopped up and sold for parts, effectively.

The Albuquerque Journal is reporting that the state can’t seem to make any money off the system, which was originally touted as an economic development and research tool, and has repossessed it from the non-profit organization that was running things.

Nobody seems interested in buying the system either, probably because of its inability to make money, and the fact that it costs about $1 million per year to maintain. So the state is considering dividing up the system’s computing racks among three universities. The system has 28 racks with 500 processors each, and bidding has already begun for individual components, though the state is still hopeful that a buyer for the complete system can be found.

So here we have what looked like a success story at first. Check out how happy officials seemed with Encanto back when it was built with this facility tour video.

Now, it’s worse than an albatross around the state’s neck. A financial investigation found that despite the $11 million original price tag and $9 million in continuing costs, the system is now worth a few hundred thousand dollars.

One could argue that a state government should never have gotten into the supercomputer business or that Encanto was mismanaged. It could even still prove a success story if somebody figures out something profitable and worthwhile to do with the thing.

But it is yet another warning to be cautious in running the supercomputer race. Supercomputers such as Titan are intended as research tools, not profit centers, but some like Encanto were intended to spur economic development. And New Mexico could lose millions. If the next generation of supercomputers are found similarly unsustainable, the costs could be much higher.

Old supercomputers don’t die. They don’t fade away. They get sold for parts.

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