Stevens aims $30 million at UAF supercomputing project

Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Projects done at the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are destined to get bigger, better and faster.

Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, tucked $30 million into a compromise defense spending bill to upgrade the center's computing power. It currently is ranked 78th in the world.

L.J. Evans, the center's press aide, said Monday she does not know what the money will be used to buy. ''I'm sure we'll put it to good use,'' she said.

But Evans seemed confident that whatever new equipment is added will move the center up considerably in the ranking by Top500, a Web site sponsored by the University of Mannheim and the University of Tennessee that ranks the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world.

The Arctic Region Supercomputing Center was ranked 41st less than a year ago. But other universities, defense agencies, banks and laboratories around the world have invested money for upgrades while the Fairbanks center's Cray T3E900, nicknamed ''Yukon,'' fell behind the pack.

That doesn't necessarily mean the older unit will be retired. The $10 million machine is just three years old and has been upgraded twice, most recently in February of 1999 when its capacity was more than doubled to the equivalent of 272 of the fastest desktop computers money could buy.

The Yukon is the equivalent of a ''very nice, top-of-the-line American-made car,'' Evans said. With $30 million from the Stevens appropriations earmark, the center could afford to add a couple of cars to its fleet, she said.

The supercomputing center has been a favorite Stevens project since 1990, when it was created despite some controversy.

Stevens then was senior Republican on the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee. He earmarked $25 million to establish the supercomputing center because it could be used to help determine a way to ''harness the power of the aurora borealis.''

Stevens was ridiculed in the press for the project. Critics tried to kill the funding when they learned in 1992 that a contract to buy the computer had not been signed.

One of the leading critics, former Minnesota Democratic Rep. Timothy Penny, chastised Stevens for his persistent pursuit of pork, but the Alaska Republican prevailed, anyway.

''I'm beyond the point of being outraged,'' Penny told the Anchorage Daily News about his defeat.

Over the years, the original Cray was retired, a new one was added, and then the T3E900 was placed online in 1997. The upgrades were made possible in part by $10 million a year from the Defense Department's high performance computer modernization program.

The university's supercomputers have been used for projects ranging from conquering the mysteries of the aurora to charting ice movements in the Arctic Ocean.

''Along with providing the necessary computer technology for the Institute of Northern Engineering, the Geophysical Institute, the Institute of Marine Sciences and other campus programs, the supercomputer makes it possible for researchers to make significant contributions on state, national and international levels,'' Stevens said in a press release Saturday.

The timing of the upgrade is ''well suited to the needs of the National Missile Defense Program,'' which Stevens' office said was expected to be a significant customer of the supercomputing center if and when the missile defense shield is built in Alaska.

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