Work starting on U of I's supercomputer building

Published: 11/5/2008 3:06 PM | Updated: 11/5/2008 5:50 PM

CHAMPAIGN -- Construction has begun on the $72 million building at the University of Illinois that will house what's expected to be the fastest new supercomputer in the world.

The building should be finished in 2010, said Rob Pennington, deputy director of the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The computer, known as Blue Waters, should be running in 2011.

Officials broke ground in a ceremony in Champaign on Wednesday, but work on the foundation has already started.

"I must say the level of enthusiasm and optimism is just amazing," Pennington said. "The tangible part always helps. It shows real progress. You're able to say 'Yes, we're going to do all this work, and oh, we actually have a building to put it in.'"

Blue Waters will be capable of performing a thousand-trillion operations a second. That's a standard for computational speed known as a petaflop, something computer scientists have long dreamt of reaching.

IBM's Blue Gene/L is currently the world's fastest supercomputer, but has only about a third of Blue Waters' expected capability. The NCSA's fastest supercomputer, Abe, has less than a tenth of the processing power the new system will have.

The university is working with IBM on Blue Waters, and has a number of potential projects waiting for the computer, Pennington said.

What the project lacks is $60 million promised by the state for construction.

That money will come from Gov. Rod Blagojevich's long-stalled $25 billion construction-spending plan, which has been held up in disagreements between the Democratic governor and the General Assembly.

"That's something that would be one of many worthwhile projects," Blagojevich spokesman Brian Williamsen said.

Pennington, however, said he's not concerned about the state's financial commitment.

The university has said it would spend its own money on construction and hopefully be reimbursed by the state.