FEATURES & COMMENTARY
San Diego, CALIF. — A used supercomputer may have found a new home – out on a ranch.
Technology entrepreneur Steve Blank, who founded Ardent Computers and Epiphany and owns a 260-acre ranch on the Northern California coast, won a Cray Research Y-MP C90 supercomputer on eBay with a bid of $45,100.70.
The computer was offered by the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, which put the C90 up for auction to make room for a new supercomputer.
“I’m ecstatic,” Blank said. “In 50 years, people are just going to go, ‘That was the pinnacle of military computing. These machines are going to be as important as the first PC or the first minicomputer.'”
Although the C90 that Blank bought was used for nonmilitary purposes at the supercomputing center, the military used similar machines to design and develop nuclear weapons.
Blank said he has not decided what he is going to do with the machine, but one idea he has is to set it up on his ranch, “next to the tractors.” “It could be the only ranch on the coast with a supercomputer,” he said.
Regardless of where the machine ends up, Blank said he plans to keep it in working condition. He said he was arranging with Cray and the supercomputing center to ship the machine in a climate-controlled environment.
Michael Schneider, a science writer at the supercomputing center, said the center was “pleased” with the auction result. Before the auction, the center was planning on paying Cray $30,000 to haul the computer away. Instead, as part of the auction, Blank will pick up the tab on the packing and shipping for the C90. “We didn’t know what would happen,” Schneider said. “We’re basically about $75,000 ahead of where would have been if we hadn’t done the eBay thing.”
“The idea to sell the supercomputer on eBay started out as a joke,” said Schneider, “but we needed the space and didn’t want to pay to have it hauled away.”
The center needed to make room for its new supercomputer, which it will begin setting up next week. The new system – roughly the size of a basketball court – is being touted as the most powerful supercomputer for public research in the world.
The old system was the world’s most powerful system when it was installed in 1993. That system is capable of doing 16 billion operations per second at peak – the equivalent of every human on Earth doing almost three calculations each second. The new system is 375 times more powerful, Schneider said. It will be used to do such work as molecular modeling and global warming research.
The description for the old system that accompanied the eBay listing read: “We need to make space for the new baby, and we’d like to find a good home for this senior citizen.” Schneider said the old system had an original list price of $35 million (although the center, a nonprofit, got it at a discount). That fact and the selling price considered, the supercomputer’s value has depreciated 99.9 percent in a mere seven years.
Although the older supercomputer is outdated, it is still a very powerful computer and is a good bargain for some buyer. Any number of companies, from engineering concerns to brokerages to pharmaceutical firms, could be interested in such a powerful system.
But whoever had the high bid on eBay yesterday is not buying a computer that simply can be plugged into the wall, flipped on and put to task.
After the 30-ton system is transported to its new home, it will require an electrical system that can handle 400 kilowatts. It will have to be placed in a climate-controlled facility that also can handle its liquid-cooling system. And it will require a proprietary software operating system and peripherals that could cost another $200,000 or so. “You need to know a lot about supercomputing to buy a system like this,” Schneider said.