Compaq wins supercomputing contract after Sun gets the boot

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 terms of the three-year deal, Compaq will supply APAC with a 450-processor Alphaserver SC system. When fully installed, the machine will rank among the most powerful computers in Australia, according to APAC, a partnership of seven organizations involving 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, executive director of Canberra, Australia-based 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." O'Callaghan didn't specify why the Sun equipment failed.

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

The mainframelike 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. Under the contract with APAC, the initial system was supposed to be progressively upgraded by mid-2002 to a 1-TFLOPS machine based on Sun's new UltraSPARC III processor technology.

In a statement released last summer, Sun claimed that the installation would set "unprecedented standards in total computing power for Australia." The computer maker also said 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 proposals," O'Callaghan said. "Compaq was awarded the contract based on a number of criteria, including price/performance."

Commenting on the terminated deal, a Sun spokesman said via e-mail that the company was "unable in this instance to complete the acceptance tests within an acceptable period of time." When the new RFP was issued, he added, Sun was "invited to rebid, but declined because our product schedules did not align with those required by APAC."

What's 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," an Ashland, Mass.-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 (see story).

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