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Behind the Parting of IBM and Blue Waters

Soulskill posted about 3 years ago | from the it's-not-you-it's-me dept.

IBM 36

An anonymous reader writes "The News-Gazette has an article about the troubled Blue Waters supercomputer project, providing some new information about why IBM and the University of Illinois parted ways back in August. Quoting: 'More than three dozen changes, most suggested by IBM, would have delayed the Blue Waters project by a year ... The requested changes caused friction as early as December 2010, eight months before IBM pulled out, leaving the project to look for a new vendor for the supercomputer. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show Big Blue and the Big U asserting their rights in lengthy and increasingly testy, but always polite, language. In the documents, IBM suggested that if changes were not made, the project would become overly expensive.'"

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IBM warning for cost overrun?? (0)

dna_(c)(tm)(r) (618003) | about 3 years ago | (#37524574)

I doubt IBM is well placed to do anything less expensive than anyone else...

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (2)

EmagGeek (574360) | about 3 years ago | (#37524606)

Isn't that the truth? IBM is definitely the consultant to call if you want to learn how to do things as inefficiently and as expensively as possible.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37524630)

Yes and yet their business keeps growing and outperforming most in the services business because all their customers are complete naive fools with money to burn and no sense of value.

Perhaps you and the GP should urgently email the CIOs of all these businesses to warn them and share your great insight.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

Nerdfest (867930) | about 3 years ago | (#37524652)

I will be a very happy software developer when people stop believing that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM". I detect sarcasm in your post, but I don't think it should be there. I respect IBM for the R&D they still do, but that's about all.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (0)

garyebickford (222422) | about 3 years ago | (#37524984)

"nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"

. That really was true back in the day when IBM owned the mainframe business. Numerous anecdotes exist about their business practices back then. Of course those business practices pissed much of their customer base off, made a significant fraction of all sysadmins virulently anti-IBM and eventually got them into antitrust trouble and arguably nearly destroyed the company. (Hmm. Sounds familiar - what other company went the same path? Hmmm) When I was in school literally nobody in the CS department was planning to work in the IBM environment, much like more recent times when folks in CS were against working for Microsoft. I suppose it's due to that pesky libertarian streak that runs through the computin community.

One widely discussed anecdote (I have no idea if it's true or not) went as follows: A sysadmin decided to buy a third-party plug-compatible printer and plugged it into the mainframe (which was leased from IBM with a full service contract). The IBM salesman came by on his periodic visit, and noticed the printer. Soon a phalanx of IBM VPs visited - not the sysadmin, not his manager, but the CEO of the company in another city. And they would tell the CEO that, while they believed in the free market, they felt it was important to let the CEO know that, if any problems occurred, since there was non-IBM hardware plugged in, they would not be able to tell if it was an IBM problem and could not initiate a service call until it was proved (by the sysadmin and the third party vendor) that the third party printer was not the problem This might take, oh, a month or two, and in the meantime the mainframe would be out of service. The CEO would call the sysadmin's manager, the sysadmin would be fired, and the third party printer would be tossed out the back door.

I don't know if IBM actually did that (they later learned their lesson by all accounts and as we all know have been promoting open source and other 'good things' - and I think have earned a place as a major player in a very competitive field), but if you read "Father, Son and Company" by Tom Watson Jr., there are anecdotes from the early days that were much worse. And a friend of mine who used to work for General Foods told me about things he did regarding Jell-O and competitors on store shelves that were very similar, where local food store managers did get fired for promotions that GF didn't like, so it does happen.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37524838)

Unfortunately most Ceo;s are the naive fools you state. They usually have MBA's and do not have any tech background. All it is is friendship, connections and who has the biggest line of bullshit.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

somersault (912633) | about 3 years ago | (#37524858)

Amen.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37525440)

Speaking of Amen, sounds like their next vendor might be Moses. Though his niche is more with 'Parting Red Seas' than 'Parting Blue Waters'.

Ho ho ho, I made a not very good religious joke...

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

Thud457 (234763) | about 3 years ago | (#37525994)

good grief man, if you're going to blaspheme, at least try to be funny!

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

magglebot (2471628) | about 3 years ago | (#37525220)

My observation has been that some of the highest priced consultants from IBM come in the area of product specialization - products which IBM sells - and in this area, they _are_ the experts (and perhaps, the only experts) in the field. I haven't seen problems with the quality of work in these cases, but I have seen customers sour on the high fees.

But perhaps your vitriol is directed to the Global Business Services consultants - who are the ones who work on those laaarge projects. I have no first hand experience there, but anecdotes suggest that they are no worse than EDS / Accenture / and others who work in the same space.

Re:IBM warning for cost overrun?? (1)

GordonBX (1059078) | about 3 years ago | (#37527380)

... anecdotes suggest that they are no worse than EDS / Accenture / and others who work in the same space.

And here is a lesson in how to damn with faint praise.

From WWII-era hollerith cards to supercomputers. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37526490)

Wow, how far that company has come; from WWII-era hollerith cards to supercomputers.

Just as the original cards were used, I hope IBM uses its resources for good purposes and to further mankind's knowledge.

LOL

There's an Inherent Conflict Here (2)

BBCWatcher (900486) | about 3 years ago | (#37524726)

One part of the article: "John Melchi, a senior associate director at NCSA, said last week that there is a variety of vendors available, which he compared to a choice of car dealers." Then another part: "Though she declined to answer technical questions, the FOIA documents mention clock speed as an issue."

OK, supercomputer vendorscar dealers, raise your hands: how many of you have 4+ GHz CPUs to sell? Standard, commercially available POWER7 cores run up to 4.25 GHz. That's the second highest clock speed CPU in the world, and by a considerable margin. (The highest in the world? this one [wikipedia.org] , at 5.2 GHz.)

Could it be that academics demanded their idea of perfection and were unsatisfied with mere best available reality? That's never happened before.

Hertz is not the issue (2)

garyebickford (222422) | about 3 years ago | (#37525012)

It may be that other vendors appear to be able to do the project for less money per TFLOP. If (example with made up numbers) an SC based on the POWER7 cores has 100,000 cores and they cost $1000 per core, but another Intel-based SC with 200,000 cores can do the same work and costs $400 per core with the same operating cost, then the latter machine is cheaper for the performance required - which is the figure of merit.

Re:Hertz is not the issue (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37526036)

As long as you remember to do that math using the TCO (add in maintenance, cooling and power at the very least) instead of just the initial deployment costs.

This is something most managers DO get right nowadays, actually. And anyone in CS, CE (computer engineering) and EE that does NOT do i has to be destroyed with extreme prejudice before he/she has a chance to reproduce.

Re:There's an Inherent Conflict Here (2)

antifoidulus (807088) | about 3 years ago | (#37525018)

Well, it probably has to do with heat more than anything else. The whole idea of this supercomputer was that it would be the most energy efficient petaflop machine in the world largely because they intended to use passive(water, and in the winter, cold air) cooling as much as possible. However, at least from what little unredacted material was released, that didn't look like it was going to happen, not this year anyway.

an accurate analogy, perhaps (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37528580)

One part of the article: "John Melchi, a senior associate director at NCSA, said last week that there is a variety of vendors available, which he compared to a choice of car dealers."

... and they all spinned and lied like used car salesmen.

Wait, what? (2, Interesting)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | about 3 years ago | (#37524736)

IBM told you to take your $300 million project somewhere else? If that doesn't say VOLUMES about your project management/specification process, I don't know what does.

Re:Wait, what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37524950)

Exactly, the moment CLEAR requirements are specified the real costs become clear and if there's no profit/benefit to staying in it why would they?

Sounds like it does say VOLUMES about the quality of the project management/specification process.

Re:Wait, what? (2)

level380 (2427256) | about 3 years ago | (#37525040)

Your 100% correct.... IBM walked away cause they screwed up the quote/pricing and couldn't deliver what they quoted and make money, hence the recommended 'changes' errr 'fixes' to the system, ie to pad out the wallets of IBM!

Re:Wait, what? (2)

Meeni (1815694) | about 3 years ago | (#37525652)

This is the bleeding edge of computer engineering. Nobody knows precisely what the final cost will be before actually building the machine, and how it will actually perform outside of the HPL benchmark. We sure have ideas on cost and performance, and the peak performance is very well known before hand, but the actual maximum performance and cost are totally experimental, in these 1-off machines. In a better economy, the vendor is willing to take the loss for the advertisement he receives from being "the most powerful computer in the world", which definitely helps sell the smaller size machines off the same design (think BG/L and P or Cray XT4 which sell like hot cakes). In the current economy, nobody, not even IBM, has the cashflow to absorb several tens of millions loss on a marketing operation.

Re:Wait, what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37525230)

You work with IBM, for five days as a non-IMBer and see how much you want to give them $10, let alone millions.

Re:Wait, what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37527886)

FTFA: The statement of work "is without question a firm fixed price contract that can only be modified by the mutual agreement of the parties," Easter wrote.

IBM asked to increase the price and slip the schedule, project management refused. As one who has seen both sides of this game I commend the project managers for cutting their losses at this point. More people need to understand the meaning of "sunk costs".

Pun in title (1)

Yuioup (452151) | about 3 years ago | (#37524814)

Something tells me that the only reason this article exists is because of the intended pun in the title.

Re:Pun in title (2)

nschubach (922175) | about 3 years ago | (#37525358)

The requested changes caused friction as early as December 2010, eight months before IBM pulled out

What about the sexual innuendo?

Illinois (3, Interesting)

0100010001010011 (652467) | about 3 years ago | (#37525076)

Illinois is broke as all hell. They're setting themselves up to be the next California. I moved out around a year ago before they raised state income tax. At that time they hadn't paid any of the in state colleges what they were owed for around 18 months.

U of I also came out with a genius plan to 'lock in' your rate for 4 years, so if there is a short fall, the next year is going to have a huge jump in tuition. It's getting to the point where in-state for U of I is as expensive as out of state if you were to go to Purdue, Michigan, UW Madison, etc. Out of state tuition is up near the cost of private schools.

Re:Illinois (1)

nschubach (922175) | about 3 years ago | (#37525384)

I lived in the Chicagoland area for three years and it doesn't surprise me. There was so much money wasted, spoiled, and misused that it's not even funny. From Toll issues to the problems they have with elected and public officials...

Re:Illinois (2)

Meeni (1815694) | about 3 years ago | (#37525666)

Money for building the computer essentially comes from NSF. U.I.U.C. provides for a marginal part of the cost.

Re:Illinois (1)

whovian (107062) | about 3 years ago | (#37529512)

Did NSF pay for just the computer proper? How much was allocated to the building itself, the cooling system, the land? I assume the land was given by the State of Illinois. I believe some of the fundage for the building and cooling was campus-bought -- but I'm not certain.

 

Re:Illinois (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37527294)

It's getting to the point where in-state for U of I is as expensive as out of state if you were to go to Purdue, Michigan, UW Madison, etc. Out of state tuition is up near the cost of private schools.

Oh, really?

From US News & World Reports:
University of Illinois: $13,558 (in-state), $27,700 (out-of-state)
Purdue: $24,428 (out-of-state)
Michigan: $37,265 (out-of-state)
Wisconsin-Madison: $25,421 (out-of-state)

You're full of shit? Ok.

Re:Illinois (1)

_defiant_ (120560) | about 3 years ago | (#37528816)

U of I also came out with a genius plan to 'lock in' your rate for 4 years, so if there is a short fall, the next year is going to have a huge jump in tuition. This wasn't the U of I's idea. We have the great Governor Blago to thank for this. Not only did he decrease funding for the university, he also made it harder for the U to raise its own. Genius!

Re:Illinois (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37533834)

"It's getting to the point where in-state for U of I is as expensive as out of state if you were to go to Purdue, Michigan, UW Madison, etc."

I call BS. Base rate, Fall 2011 freshmen, per semester, full-time:
UI $11,104 ($8,440 for super-seniors)
Purdue $27,646
UM $18,794
UW $12,710.4

Madison, maybe, but still a 10% gap, which is $8000 over the course of undergrad. The others, a far cry.

Re:Illinois (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37559664)

"It's getting to the point where in-state for U of I is as expensive as out of state if you were to go to Purdue, Michigan, UW Madison, etc. Out of state tuition is up near the cost of private schools."
This really isn't true. As a senior in Computer Engineering at UIUC, I can tell you I pay $18,000 a year for tuition (engineering is $3,000 more than non-engineering). A quick look at out of state tuition at the relevant institutions you mentioned:
Michigan: $37,000-40,000 http://www.finaid.umich.edu/TopNav/AboutUMFinancialAid/CostofAttendance.aspx
Purdue: $27,000 http://admissions.purdue.edu/costs/tuitionfees.html
Roes-Hulman (private engineering school): $37,000 http://www.rose-hulman.edu/gradstudies/costs.htm

I left out UW-Madison because they are not focused on engineering like the ones listed.

If you want to say that UIUC in state tuition is more expensive than most states, then I more than agree. $18,000 is a lot for in-state. However, don't try to fool everyone into thinking it's closer to out of state at other schools. the UC system charges something like $6,000 a year for in-state, and look at what's happening there: new students are being told it's unlikely they will be able to finish in 4 years.

And here are the facts. (1)

sgt scrub (869860) | about 3 years ago | (#37526444)

Sorry. I guess my title was just as full of shit as TFA's You can read the article to confirm but basically it says, "we can't give out the facts".

Deep Thought --) Blue Thought --) Blue Waters (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 3 years ago | (#37529630)

It would be apt to rename it into Deep Waters now.

Such projects are based on estimations (1)

markus_baertschi (259069) | about 3 years ago | (#37530250)

Such projects are always based on estimated performance numbers. It looks to me like the estimated (and contractually signed) target performance was higher than what IBM could deliver in the budget envelope and the target timeframe. Probably the technology advance was not delivering as expected. As the U of Illinois was not ready to soften on some aspects to make it fit IBM had the choice of either delivering much more hardware at a loss or to pull out.

From my (limited) search it looks like the project was signed in 2008, so back then IBM estimated they can deliver a PetaFLOP for $200M in 2011. It looks like they were wrong.

I witnessed similar situation where the machine could deliver the promised performance using a benchmarking program, but real apps were unable to get to similar numbers. Improving the software stack made the performance available to apps, but it took 2 years to get there. The hardware was performing well, but immature software was spoiling it.

Markus

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