As Blue Waters gets closer, Daily Illini reporting some tension over costs

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Yesterday the Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the U of Illinois (home organization to NCSA and the Blue Waters project) posted an article about Blue Waters. I think the article does a reasonable job of reflecting the conversation that always goes on around large HPC projects with questions of costs and benefits

“Blue Waters will be used to do scientific research that relies on supercomputers,” she added. “It might be doing better weather prediction. It might be looking at how the universe evolved in the very early days, and it might be trying to find an answer to global warming. It will be, in 2011, the most powerful supercomputer in the world.”

And then the costs, which I don’t think I had seen brough altogether like this before

The computer itself will cost $208 million to build and will be funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF. The cost of housing the supercomputer is $72 million; the University will pay $12 million and the state will pay $60 million, Barker said.

The U of I is getting a LOT of leverage on Blue Waters (set to come online next year), and it’s contribution to the university is certain to outweigh the $12M the  university is carrying on capital expenditure for the deal. But the university is evidently having a budget crisis, and the $12M had to come from something

But with what administrators have called a “budget crisis” looming in the University’s near future, some have brought to question the morality of the University spending this much on a computer.

…“We need to question very seriously what the priorities of the administration are,” he said. “When they are telling us that they have to furlough staff and faculty, that they are freezing all hirings and that there is not enough money to efficiently fund instruction on campus, then we need to know the benefits of these high technology programs.”

Fair enough. Too bad Randy Kangas in the university’s planning arm isn’t helping the situation with answers like these

Kangas said the University will not be responsible for funding the operational cost of Blue Waters.

“There will be additional funds that come through for research and operations, at least we hope,” he said. “There’s also a consortium with a lot of other universities, and you would hope that there will be corporate interest in what a facility like this can do.”

“Not responsible…” followed by “…at least we hope.” Hope is not a strategy. I’m sure that the U of I has a funding strategy, and I don’t know why he didn’t just articulate it. Then there was this bit of helpfulness

“If you had to make the decision today, I don’t know, maybe the provost and the chancellor would make a different decision, but it’s a very important project for campus,” Kangas said. “You have to look at it from two points, not just the dollars, but what it will do academically for the campus.”

Which was made worse by the NSF, an organization that should be really good at dealing with this line of inquiry

“We (the NSF) are in the business of funding things that sometimes, at first blush, the practical implications for which are not immediately recognized,” Zgorski said. “It’s (Blue Waters) building for the future and providing the computational resources to attack the really complex, daunting problems we are facing in society.”


She’s right of course, but what a bad way to put it. She’s responding to an articulated concern about jobs and financial security, so why not focus on all the jobs the construction created, or the faculty and grad student research funding the new computer is expected to facilitate?