Efforts to find out how and why Rutgers University’s $10 million supercomputer crashed–or, at least, had to be shut down before it did crash because of a cooling malfunction–have only raised new questions about what has been touted as one of the fastest computers in the world. One that hasn’t worked since mid-January, just a few weeks after its official launch in December, 2016.
For example–when exactly was it built and who built it? What process was used to find the contractors who won the contracts to build it?
Of course, Rutgers already had a supercomputer. In 2012, IBM donated, with great fanfare, one of its BlueGene supercomputers–a $3 million-plus machine–to the university. At the time, both Rutgers and IBM officials predicted a long-standing relationship between the university and one of the industry’s leaders–IBM, along with Lenovo, Cray, Dell and Hewlett-Packard dominate the market internationally.
But, alas, it was not to be. According to a university spokesman, that supercomputer–dubbed “Excalibur” by Rutgers computer specialists in honor of The Scarlet Knights–“has been decommissioned after reaching the end of its life cycle.”
Condolences, Excalibur. We hardly knew ye.
In February of 2016, RU announced that a replacement for Excalibur was “under construction” and was already providing computer services to a few people. Still, this apparently was not the supercomputer Rutgers wanted. That, the statement said, would have to wait until “competitive bids” were submitted “in the summer.”
More recently, a spokesperson for Rutgers said the competitive bids, in fact, were not opened until the fall.
Ok. Delays can be expected.
Delays–but not precognition. Because in June of 2016–June 20–apparently before bids were opened and the contractors for later “phases” of the supercomputer chosen, the Rutgers University Office of Research and Economic Development put out a breathless statement saying Rutgers already had one of the biggest supercomputers in the world, as recognized by the so-called Top500, a rating system for supercomputers developed by a number of scientists.
That statement already identified HighPoint Solutions–a company that had paid $6.5 million for the naming rights to Rutgers stadium in 2011–as the “lead contractor” in the building of what already had been named “Caliburn,” another version of “Excalibur” which, English majors at least, will recognize as the legendary King Arthur’s legendary sword. The statement also said Super Micro Computer, Inc., would be the subcontractor and actually build the machine because, a spokesperson said recently, Super Micro doesn’t sell without a middle-man.
Just as it would take an act of magic for Arthur to remove the sword from the stone, it would take some special powers to know on June 20, 2016, what contractors would be chosen under a competitive bidding process months later.
The Rutgers spokesperson also has declined so far to identify all the bidders in the competitive bidding process–for any of the phases of “Caliburn.” Indeed, statements from Rutgers about the bidding have been couched in ambiguous terms, indicating the contractors were chosen “after” a competitive bidding process, not necessarily as the result of a competitive bidding process.
This site has asked for clarification–and for the names of other vendors who participated in the “competitive” bidding process.
In this site’s previous story about the shutting down of New Jersey’s most expensive computer, a Rutgers spokesperson was quoted as saying a malfunction in the computer’s cooling system led to the shutdown. Asked for a further explanation, the spokesperson said:
“The cooling system in the facility housing the supercomputer malfunctioned when a seal broke, leaking glycol. The modular data center that houses Caliburn was built and installed by another vendor that is overseeing repairs to the cooling system.”
All right, but in an October, 2016 statement–before or after the bidding?–from Supermicro Computer, Inc., the actual builder of the computer–contended that one of the reasons its machine was such a good deal for Rutgers was this–it had its own, innovative cooling system, much better than that of its competition.
The statement, like Rutgers own statements in June, made it clear the HighPoint Solutions/Supermicro “Caliburn” was up and running long before competitive bids were opened “in the fall.”
UPDATE: The Rutgers University public information office has refused to provide further information about the competitive bidding process without the filing of a formal request under the Open Public Records Act. The site will file such a request. It also provided this further informationon the malfunction that caused the supercomputer shutdown: “To reiterate, the seal malfunction occurred in the modular data center
> chiller unit. That unit pumps coolant into the computing cooling
> system (which is what you referenced) which runs through rear doors on
> the computers. They are two separate things. Again, the issue was with
> the chiller unit in the modular data center, not the computer.” Rutgers, however, continues to decline to identify the contractor responsible for the modular data center.