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NM on verge of repossessing state's supercomputer

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POSTED July 12, 2012 10:05 p.m.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Susana Martinez's administration is on the verge of taking back New Mexico's $11 million supercomputer known as "Encanto" from the nonprofit group set up to operate it.

The administration has told the New Mexico Computing Applications Center it plans to repossess the machine because the group can't pay its bills or perform necessary upkeep, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The state will consider various options, including selling off the supercomputer entirely or in part, or putting another entity in charge of it.

But computer experts at New Mexico's research universities say the state could earn a lot more money by keeping its supercomputer than it could by selling it off to private bidders.

Susan Atlas, director of the University of New Mexico's Center for Advanced Research Computing, said Encanto can leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants if turned over to New Mexico's universities.

"Our little center ... supports approximately $100 million in federal research," Atlas said. "I could double or triple that very quickly if we got access to Encanto."

The center constantly turns scientists away now because supercomputer availability is tight.

State Information Technology Secretary Darryl Ackley said in a June 20 letter to Applications Center CEO Tom Bowles that the center owes nearly $1.25 million in past-due bills to Intel Corp. in Rio Rancho, where the supercomputer is housed, and to a company that sold the computer to New Mexico and that provided maintenance and operation services until last fall.

The supercomputer has been a source of political bickering since 2008, when the Legislature approved $11 million to buy it.

Then-Gov. Bill Richardson's administration planned to use the computer to support research at New Mexico's universities and national labs, as well as state economic development initiatives, such as planning and simulation to build a smart, clean energy grid.

After taking office, Martinez criticized Encanto as a "symbol of excess" left over from the Richardson administration, and no new funding has been approved for the Applications Center since 2010.

Even if the state doesn't repossess the computer, the center faces an uncertain future because Intel has declined to renew its lease to remain on the company's campus in Rio Rancho.

Intel plans to demolish the building where Encanto is housed, meaning the computer will have to be relocated by Sept. 30.

Bowles said the Martinez administration seems bent on repossessing the supercomputer to sell it to private operators.

He has been negotiating with the state's three research universities to locate portions of the supercomputer at each campus. Any agreement he strikes will be subject to state approval.

The Applications Center was thrust into a financial crunch in November, after its largest customer ceased operations and defaulted on $934,000 in back payments, Bowles said. That caused the center to fall into arrears on $421,000 owed to a company for maintenance and operation services.

But Bowles said that's the center's only unpaid bill.

Ackley had cited an outstanding $826,800 debt the center owes to Intel for power and cooling services to run the computer.

But Bowles said those expenses are covered under an exchange agreement with Intel in effect since 2010, whereby Intel houses the computer for free and provides power and cooling services. In return, it gets working time on the computer.

 

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