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January 11, 2013

Salvaging Encanto

Tiffany Trader

Encanto supercomputer, still intact – Source: NMCAC

It seems like just yesterday that Encanto – that’s Spanish for “enchantment” – was launched as the pride (and potential salvation) of New Mexico, primed to spur economic development by attracting high-tech companies to the state. But money troubles have plagued the system since its launch in 2008.

Last summer the State of New Mexico repossessed Encanto from the non-profit that managed it, the New Mexico Computing Applications Center. The system had racked up substantial debt, and there was little funding for Encanto’s maintenance and operation.

Now, according to a story in the Albuquerque Journal, this former number-three superstar is headed to the chopping block. The state is planning to sell off parts of the system to local research universities – the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology – to recoup some of its investment and pay off outstanding debts.

“Barring someone offering to buy the whole machine, we can still get piecemeal use from it,” state Information Technology Secretary Darryl Ackley told the paper. “The universities have proposed to cannibalize it to put some of the assets back into service.”

The project was troubled from the start as the New Mexico government made the unusual decision that the computer should pay for itself by selling cycles to interested parties. Proponents of limited government lambasted the project as a waste of taxpayer money, while researchers expressed doubt over the sustainability of the supercomputer-as-revenue-generator business model.

In short, the supercomputer was never adequately funded, although Encanto and other high-end systems did their part to attract federal research dollars. The Computing Applications Center estimates that the state’s computational resources drew $60 million in federal funding to New Mexico universities.

Salvaging Encanto piecemeal style may be the best outcome at this point. While the 172 teraflop (peak) SGI Altix machine was the third-fastest in the world in late 2007, as of November 2012, the supercomputer had slid to number 185 on the TOP500 list. And despite Encanto’s $11 million original price tag – with another $9 million going to operational expenses – it’s now worth only a few hundred thousand dollars.

After trying unsuccessfully to find a buyer for the machine, Ackley invited the University of NM to house and manage the system, and make it available to researchers at UNM, NMSU and New Mexico Tech. UNM responded that this would not be economically feasible. They would need to generate $1 million-per-year for five years to cover operating costs, but the supercomputer’s expected useful lifetime is only another four years.

In the words of UNM’s interim vice president for research and development, John McGraw: “To operate the computer as a whole entity is just not possible. But putting a number of racks to use at each research university is one way the state could at least recover some value from its investment.”

By divvying up the supercomputer’s 28 racks, the effective lifetime is extended. Plus the universities in question already operate small Encanto replica machines, called “exemplars,” that have one rack of processors each. If the fire sale goes through, UNM will get 10 additional racks; New Mexico State University will take four, and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology will claim two, significantly boosting the schools’ computational power.

But that still leaves 12 of the 28 racks unaccounted for. The state’s IT department is reviewing what to do with the unsold racks and leftover components. There are also legal aspects of distributing a state asset among the universities that need to be ironed out. Encanto awaits its fate while being housed at Intel’s Rio Rancho facility.

Takeaway: In this age of budget cuts, austerity measures and self-inflicted fiscal cliffs, Encanto’s decline serves as a cautionary tale, one that casts doubt on the strategy of expecting research tools to double as profit centers.