Compaq wins supercomputing contract

Compaq Computer Corp. was recently awarded a multimillion-dollar supercomputing contract in Australia after an earlier contract with Sun Microsystems Inc. for the same project was terminated late last year because Sun's high-end servers failed acceptance tests.

In mid-February, the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing (APAC) announced that it had selected Compaq to provide supercomputing technology for large-scale scientific and engineering research in areas such as molecular modeling and fluid dynamics.

Under the three-year deal, Compaq will supply APAC with a 450-processor Alphaserver SC system that, when fully installed, will rank among the most powerful systems in Australia, according to APAC.

APAC is a partnership of seven organizations involving most Australian universities and CSIRO Australia, the country's largest scientific and industrial research agency.

APAC's decision to use Compaq equipment came after it abandoned an earlier decision to use Sun servers because the systems failed to meet acceptable standards for the project, said John O'Callaghan, the Canberra, Australia-based executive director of APAC, in an e-mail.

"The acceptance tests were done as part of the installation of the system -- and were a condition of payment," O'Callaghan said.

"The contract with Sun was terminated because their system failed the acceptance tests," he said. O'Callaghan didn't specify how they failed.

Sun won the original US$5 million, three-year APAC contract last August. It called for Sun to commission a 200-gigaflop system in September, comprising a cluster of four E10000 servers.

The mainframe-like E10000 is Sun's highest-end server and has been responsible for powering much of the company's impressive growth in the enterprise server arena during the past few years.

The deal called for the system to have been progressively upgraded to a 1-teraflop system based on Sun's new UltraSPARC III processor technology by mid-2002.

In a statement at the time, Sun claimed the installation would set "unprecedented standards in total computing power for Australia." Sun also claimed that the size and complexity of the data computations involved in APAC's work gave it an "excellent opportunity to demonstrate the robustness and scalability of the Sun system."

The deal was scrapped by early November, however, and the four Sun E10000 servers that had been installed were returned.

"After the termination, we went back to the market with a request for proposal," O'Callaghan said. "Compaq was awarded the contract based on a number of criteria, including price/performance."

What is unclear is whether the original deal was terminated because Sun's systems simply failed to meet required performance benchmarks or because of reliability issues, said Terry Shannon, editor of Shannon Knows Compaq, a Massachusetts-based newsletter.

Sun has been quietly battling a defective memory component on its UltraSPARC II processors for more than two years. The defect has caused frequent reboots and server crashes at dozens of Sun sites.

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