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Superstumble for Japan's Supercomputer

TOKYO—A Japanese consortium’s plans to build the world's fastest supercomputer suffered a setback on 14 May when two private companies involved announced they are withdrawing to cut costs.

The Next-Generation Supercomputer is a 7-year, $1 billion national project funded by the Ministry of Education. Development is being spearheaded by RIKEN, Japan’s network of national labs, with support from several universities and private companies. The supercomputer would be housed at RIKEN’s campus in Kobe and is intended to support both academic and industrial research. The companies that pulled out, NEC and Hitachi, have been working together on the design of processors for the computer. Their withdrawal may require revisions to the computer's configuration, which could affect software being developed by other consortium members, says Tadashi Watanabe, a supercomputing expert heading the project for RIKEN. Scientists are writing code that would simulate galaxy formation, model Earth's climate, and aid in drug discovery and earthquake-resistant building design, among other things.

The departure of NEC and Hitachi "was a surprise," says Watanabe. "Some rewriting [of software] may be needed, but how much will depend on changes to the configuration, and we're now studying how to minimize impact on the software. We're doing everything we can to keep to the schedule" of completing the project in 2012.  

The supercomputer is being designed to reach computing speeds of 10 petaflops (10 quadrillion floating point operations per second). When the project was announced in 2005, Japanese computer scientists had hoped it would reign for a time as the world's fastest supercomputer. Even if it is completed as scheduled, the Next-Generation Supercomputer would soon be eclipsed by a 20-petaflops supercomputer that IBM is developing for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and which is also slated for delivery in 2012. (Here's a list of the 500 most powerful computer systems.)

In a press release, NEC stated that the scale of required investment for its part of the supercomputer project "would significantly impact earnings for the fiscal year ending in March 2010." NEC and Hitachi said they will complete their contributions to the design phase. A third computer maker, Fujitsu, confirmed that it intends to continue with the project through the manufacturing stage.