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updated 8/8/2007 8:44:19 PM ET 2007-08-09T00:44:19

By 2011, the University of Illinois should be the home of the world’s fastest supercomputer.

The National Science Board on Wednesday gave the National Science Foundation the OK to spend $208 million to build the computer at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana. The board oversees the foundation and made its decision at a meeting in Washington.

The foundation still must negotiate the details with the NCSA, but it would be very unusual for the foundation not to follow the board’s recommendation, said foundation spokeswoman Leslie Fink.

If she worked for the university, Fink said, “I think at this point I would be buying the champagne.”

Officials at the NCSA were circumspect earlier this week when a New York Times report, citing a National Science Board meeting agenda that was briefly posted on the Internet, said Illinois had been chosen to host the new supercomputer.

On Wednesday, they were relieved.

“I think everybody at this point is feeling good and patting themselves on the back and saying, ’Whew, I’m glad this over,” said Thom Dunning, director of the NCSA.

That relief won’t last long, he said.

By Monday he and others from the NCSA, IBM and elsewhere will start figuring out how to create the new system, expected to be up and running by 2011. The NCSA and IBM will build the supercomputer.

Illinois calls the new supercomputer Blue Waters, and it will be capable of performing a thousand trillion mathematical operations a second. That standard for computational speed is known as a petaflop, and computer scientists have dreamt of reaching it for years.

The National Science Foundation in 2005 asked for proposals from supercomputing centers like the NCSA to make petascale computing a reality.

IBM’s Blue Gene/L, currently the world’s fastest supercomputer, has only about a third of Blue Waters’ expected capability. The NCSA’s fastest existing supercomputer, Abe, has less than a tenth of the processing power the new system will have.

Top scientists and engineers over the past few years have assembled a list of the dozens of problems that they’d like to put petascale processing power to work on, Dunning said, if only it existed.

“In essence we do have a big, long waiting list” of potential projects, Dunning said, adding that the first projects to be tackled will be decided through a competition.

For instance: “We might be combining weather modeling associated with hurricanes, and coupling that with (storm) surge modeling that will tell us where the water goes on land,” he said. Scientists could then predict with far greater certainty than is now possible which coastal buildings and developments are most susceptible to hurricane damage.

Other subjects of study, according to the National Science Foundation, include the formation and evolution of galaxies early in the history of the universe, and the chain reactions that happen in living cells.

The project also should provide significant recruiting leverage for Illinois, and a strong shot of morale faculty and staff at the NCSA.

“There are only a few times in your life when you get to be not only at the cutting edge of computing technology, but at the cutting edge of the science,” Dunning said. “This is the type of project that they live for.”

But the logistics to be worked out are, in Dunning’s words, daunting.

A supercomputer includes hundreds of thousands of processors — compared to just one found in a personal computer. And it takes a fair amount of space and power to run.

“The facility that we’re currently in has the space; it does not have the power,” Dunning said.

That may require a new building, and the cost would not be covered by the National Science Foundation, he said.

Illinois’ proposal to build the supercomputer included a letter from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, pledging up to $60 million to build a new facility.

Fink, the National Science Foundation spokeswoman, said final word on the project should come sometime this fall after the details are negotiated.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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