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June 15, 2011

Aussie Supercomputers Under Fire

Michael Feldman

Victoria’s auditor-general is questioning the value of a $100 million outlay for a life sciences supercomputing facility in the Australian state.

The Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) in concert with the University of Melbourne, plans to initially spend $50 million of the state’s money toward x86 cluster systems and a supercomputing facility. The longer range plan to build an 800-teraflop Blue Gene/P system, which could subsequently be upgraded to as much as 3 petaflops.

The facility and supercomputers are part of a $100 million investment in VLSCI, which was set up in 2008 to support life science research in Victoria. Its mission is to push the envelope in emerging biotech technologies like computational drug discovery and personalized medicine. The University of Melbourne was tasked with planning and managing the effort.

In a report appearing in iTnews, the auditor-general claims that the plan is “based on an apparent lack of scoping and cost-benefit analysis undertaken by the University.” From the article:

[A]n audit tabled today concluded that despite “positive early signs” from researchers, “the University cannot demonstrate that the initiative represents the most effective use of the $50 million provided by the state government”.

The VLSCI audit claimed that the University did not ask researchers about their specific computational needs — hardware, software, performance, capability, and storage requirements — prior to signing the contract with IBM. Furthermore, the University was criticized for failing to provide insight into the quantity or quality of the current life science research and how extra computational capability would enhance it.

There was also an implied allegation of impropriety on the part of the University. The auditor-general pointed to earlier involvement between IBM and the University, which could have “led to the playing field of the bid process not being level.”

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