New Mexico's supercomputer gamble draws questions

Believing a supercomputer would help create jobs, New Mexico paid for and built a massive supercomputer named Encanto to spur economic development.

In the fall of 2007, at its birth, New Mexico's supercomputer was ranked No. 3 in the world. It's now ranked No. 12 and when the latest Top500 ranking comes this month, it may fall some more.

As with most supercomputers, fame is fleeting, and so now is patience of the government that funded Encanto.

A state Legislative Finance Committee report released last month was skeptical about the $36 million project's future. The report pointedly said the group that runs the project was a worry. “[New Mexico Computing Application Center's] ability to continue as a going concern is in question.”

It's too early to know if New Mexico's experiment will spur high-tech economic growth, which is the ultimate goal of the system. But when New Mexico decided on this approach, it aimed big. Encanto has 14,500 Intel Xeon processors running on a Silicon Graphics Inc. system.

SGI was recently sold at a fire sale price of $25 million to Rackable Systems Inc., another source of legislative ire. But what hasn't changed is center's access to the engineering talent at Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, as well as several universities.

The state would like this system, which became fully operational in January 2008, to earn some $59 million over a six year state commitment, as well as cover the initial investment by renting out cycles, winning grants and finding other sources of funding. It is projected to make only $2 million in the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

Reaching the larger goal “is going to be a challenge,” said Tom Bowles, the science advisor to Governor Bill Richardson and chair of the board of directors of NMCAC.

Part of the problem has been political. It wasn't until this week that the center received all the legal approvals to operate as an independent entity to get the freedom it needed to enter into contracts. But it recently announced a deal with a state-based firm, Cerelink Digital Media Group, for digital media work and is expected to create 160 jobs in three years.

Bowles said other projects are in the pipeline, including grants and federal stimulus funds tied to smart grid development. He believes the state's real competitive advantage is its access to the national labs for development help. “If it was just a computer, we wouldn't be any different from any other system in the country,” he said.

New Mexico is part of small movement of states to attempt to democratize high performance computing capabilities, and improve the ability of smaller companies to use faster design and testing processes to compete against nations that rely on low wages to manufacture goods.

It's difficult to create a state-sponsored computing model that is “cash-in and cash-out,” or pay for itself, said Stacey Simmons, associate director of economic development at Louisiana's State Universities Center for Computation & Technology. The goal of the center is build the talent pool of people who can work with in high-performance environments. Success is “reaching a level of expertise of how many people can use the resources and use meaningfully.”

Louisiana wants to build a talent base of people who can work in large parallel environments, said Simmons. Success is “reaching a level of expertise of how many people can use the resources and use meaningfully.”

Louisiana's focus on HPC prompted Electronic Arts Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based developer of computer games and other interactive entertainment software, to announce last August a plan to create a test center in Baton Rouge that will eventually have 200 employees.

Despite the initial challenges, Bowles said he is talking to genomic and medical research firms and others about New Mexico's system. He believes that there is “growing awareness of the role supercomputing plays in economic development,” and its range of applications is expanding.

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