RUTGERS FLAWED SUPERCOMPUTER: Was favoritism to donors a factor?

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High Point Solutions Stadium–The  naming rights to Rutgers Stadium were sold to a small computer firm in Sparta with no experience dealing with supercomputers. Then that same company was awarded a contract to serve as the lead contractor in construction of a supercomputer.

The $10 million Rutgers University supercomputer—a machine university officials predicted could “revolutionize the technological world”—doesn’t work properly a year after its much hyped launch as New Jersey’s “most powerful computer.”

 

 

“It is operating at reduced capacity,” a university spokeswoman says.

But the university still refuses to provide details on how High Point Solutions, Inc., a small Sparta information technology company with no background in constructing high performance computers, managed to become what officials still call the “lead contractor” in the building of the machine that was supposed to be one of the most powerful in the world.

While the company has no experience in building supercomputers, High Point Solutions does have a record of making major donations to Rutgers athletics, including the $6.5 million purchase of naming rights for the university’s football stadium. One of its owners, Thomas Mendiburu, became embroiled in a continuing athletic controversy and threatened to withhold donations.

In the last year, this site has filed repeated requests for release of public information about the connections linking High Point Solutions, the supercomputer and Rutgers athletics, including formal claims under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

Rutgers responded with 600 pages of information, much of it repetitive copies, and little was helpful. University officials continue to dodge—and provide contradictory answers to– key questions about how High Point Solutions won the “lead” bid to build the computer, how much money it was paid and exactly what it did for however much money it received.

Thomas Mendiburu

For example, Rutgers initially reported that High Point Solutions, a company privately owned by brothers Thomas and Michael Mendiburu, was “the lead contractor on the project, coordinating work done by vendors.”

But that wasn’t true. High Point Solutions didn’t coordinate the work of multiple vendors. It didn’t coordinate anyone’s work—it acted only as a sales agent for one company, Supermicro, which built the final phase of the computer.

“High Point Solution’s role was as a coordinator of the sale and purchase of Supermicro’s equipment,” the spokeswoman later said. Supermicro, not High Point Solutions, built the supercomputer. Or, at least, the final stage of it.

But what does that mean, exactly? What exactly did High Point Solutions do? And how much was it paid?

Rutgers won’t say. Its spokeswoman unhelpfully suggested that this site “contact the companies directly for information” about the “financial agreement” among the vendors—or between Supermicro and High Point Solutions.

This site did that—it asked for the financial arrangements. Both companies declined to answer. Private corporations are not covered by OPRA. Even if they do receive millions of dollars in public funds from a public institution like Rutgers, New Jersey’s state-funded university, they are not required to release information to the media.

Rutgers can’t–or won’t–tell us how much public money ended up at High Point Solutions.

Rutgers won’t tell us how much of its public money went to High Point Solutions, a major donor to Rutgers athletics—and a company that hoped its donations might mean more business, including business with Rutgers.

High Point and Supermicro—like Rutgers– also refused to answer another key question about the supercomputer that still doesn’t quite work: How exactly did High Point get to be the front company—or sales agent or whatever it was—for any other vendor, Supermicro or otherwise?

Caliburn and its Rutgers designers, Manish Parashar and Ivan Rodero, from a RU photo.

The documents provided by Rutgers under OPRA do not answer those questions. The university flatly refuses to turn over any emails it might possess between, say, the Mendiburu brothers and Manish Parashar, the Rutgers computer specialist who oversaw the construction of the supercomputer—the supercomputer dubbed “Caliburn” to invoke the “Scarlet Knight” brand of university athletics. Or between High Point Solutions and Supermicro.

An astounding lack of information

The lack of information Rutgers officially admits to having about High Point Solutions is astounding. The university handed over millions of dollars in public funds to a company about which its officials—if you believe the responses to this site’s OPRA requests—know practically nothing.

The supercomputer project was really a collection of projects. High Point Solutions received $5.3 million; Dell, $1.5 million, and IBM, $2 million. Minor contracts—for data storage, for example—went to smaller companies. The money all came from the same pot–$10 million allocated to Rutgers from the proceeds of the $750 million higher education bond issue approved by New Jersey voters in 2012. State taxpayers are paying the interest on those bonds every year.

But it’s clear from the OPRA information that High Point Solutions—no matter what its relationship wtih Supermicro—received special treatment. This is how:

BIDDING:

This is all RU wanted to know about a contractor who received a $5.3 million contract. Meanwhile, RU asked for the names of the owners of Dell and IBM.

In response to this site’s OPRA request, Rutgers provided detailed information about the bidding process for other vendors in the project—But not High Point Solutions. We know, for example, that IBM was involved in competitive bidding against five other companies, including Hewlett Packard, and was the lowest bidder for the piece of the project it received. We know the bids for this phase of the project were subjected to evaluations, not just of the bidders’ proposals, but also of its experience and qualifications of its management.

When it came to High Point Solutions and Supermicro, however, Rutgers flatly refused to provide any information about the bidding process.

Casey Woods, the OPRA administrator at Rutgers, said the university would not release information about other bidders because “the information contained therein may discourage potential vendors or service providers from bidding on future projects, the result of which would place the university at a competitive disadvantage in future bidding processes.”

Rutgers DID release information about those who bid against IBM—but NOT against those who bid against High Point Solutions. If any did. Rutgers won’t say.

And Woods’ contention is contradicted by the rules sent out by Rutgers concerning the public release of information about competitive bidding:

“As an instrumentality of the State of New Jersey, Rutgers is subject to the Open Public Records Act and has an obligation to keep its business dealings and transactions transparent. Consequently, the presumption applicable to all Bids is that bid forms, proposals. Documents, and responses submitted to Rutgers are releasable under OPRA.”

INFORMATION REQUIRED OF CONTRACTORS:

Rutgers officials required other contractors involved in the supercomputer project to provide extensive information about prior experience and finances. They had to reveal personal information about owners and top executives. In appendices attached to their bids, internationally known computer giants like Dell and IBM included sworn certifications that its owners, executives and employees were free of criminal taint. For example:

“Has any person listed in this form or its attachments ever been arrested, charged, indicted, pled guilty or been convicted in a criminal or disorderly persons matter by the State of New Jersey, any other political subdivision, state or the U.S. Government? If yes, attach a detailed explanation for each instance.”

From what Rutgers provided in response to this site’s OPRA requests, neither High Point Solutions nor Supermicro were required to provide that information. If they were required to provide it, Rutgers officials have refused to release it –in apparent violation of OPRA.

SO WHAT DID RUTGERS KNOW ABOUT HIGH POINT SOLUTIONS?

Not much, if you believe the documents provided by Rutgers officials.

Supermicro did submit a bid. On its first page, these words appear: “Supermicro, along with the partner Highpoint Solutions is proposing a ‘Made in America’ solution leveraging state-of-the-art high performance computing servers in modular data center infrastructure. Supermicro’s expertise and experience in server product design, engineering, manufacturing and support teamed with Highpoint will warrant high performance nodes housed in an efficient and ‘green’ modular data center to provide the best performance per dollar spent for HPC”—high performance computing—“ systems.”

High Point Solutions is not mentioned again in the text of the 55-page bid. Rutgers apparently didn’t want to know what it was going to do for the $5.3 million it would receive.

Another document—a form, filled in by hand and barely legible—was the only other piece of information provided by Rutgers concerning what ”High Point Solutions, Inc.” would do and the company’s qualifications for doing it. In a box marked “Explain in detail the nature of the service to be provided,” someone hand-printed:

“Sale and support of high performance nodes housed in a green, modular data center.”

Not much information there–and it’s confusing because, supposedly, another contractor–IBM–was paid to build that “green, modular data center,” a phrase that first comes up in Supermicro’s bid.

So that’s it. All Rutgers wanted to know about High Point Solutions. And it wasn’t much.

No attachments listing owners.

No recitation of finances and experience.

No certifications that anyone involved in the company had ever been in trouble with the law.

Yet High Point Solutions won the bid. Legally, it became the “lead contractor” of record. And received payment of $5,329,931.80 for whatever it did to create Rutgers University’s supercomputer.

Rutgers officials already have absolved High Point Solutions and Supermicro of any of the blame for the failure of Caliburn to be on line and fully operational a year after it was launched. They say the problem lay in the “modular center” that was constructed by IBM. But it doesn’t blame IBM either. Not that it’s completely clear who exactly built the “green, modular data center” that sprung a leak.

According to a university spokeswoman, computer giant IBM “is the contractor that built the modular data center housing the supercomputer and is coordinating the repairs and pump replacements to the data center cooling system.” Although all repairs were originally scheduled to be completed by the end of last January, the spokeswoman now says “the estimated timeline is fall 2017.”

Incidents like these often generate lawsuits. So far, none has been filed. Maybe none ever will be. Rutgers would be in an awkward legal position. It can’t even say how much it paid the major contractors. At depositions, it can’t say much of what it officially knows about High Point Solutions.

And, sometimes, litigation is the only way the truth comes out.

The full truth about “Caliburn,” the publicly-funded machine that could “revolutionize the technological world,” certainly hasn’t come out yet.

READ THE COMPLETE SERIES OF ARTICLES ABOUT THE RUTGERS SUPERCOMPUTER:

Breaking: New Jersey’s largest supercomputer, one of the world’s biggest, is down. 2/17/17 

New Jersey’s $10 million computer crash: Questions keep piling on keep piling on. 2/23/17 — 

New Jersey’s $10 million computer crash: Rutgers won’t answer any more questions. 2/24/17

The RU Computer: What football, hype, confusion, politics and lots of money gave to NJ. 3/3/17–

THE RU/HIGH POINT STONEWALL: Why won’t Rutgers release public records? 3/10/17

Why isn’t the Rutgers Stadium named for Paul Robeson? 3/12/17

 

 

 

 

 

 

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