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IBM may build world's fastest computer

SAN FRANCISCO -- The National Science Foundation is planning to award IBM a contract to build the world's fastest supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to documents that were accidentally placed on a federal government website for a short time last week.

The decision to build the machine, which will cost $200 million to build and may cost more than $400 million during its five-year lifetime, is already proving to be controversial.

The award has been eagerly pursued by a number of supercomputer centers and state governments. Word of the decision to award the contract to IBM to build a production version of a computer that is now intended for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has created concern among some computer scientists involved in designing and building high-performance computers.

The new computer is to be the first capable of one thousand trillion mathematical operations a second, a computing benchmark known as a petaflop. Placing it in Illinois, however, has led to expressions of concern in California and Pennsylvania, where computing labs bid on the contract.

The machine will become a magnet for the world's most advanced scientific research projects. Unlike many academic research supercomputers in the United States that serve a large community of users, the supercomputer will concentrate on a handful of Grand Challenge science projects, like simulating the impact of global warming.

Several government supercomputing scientists said they were concerned the decision might raise questions about impartiality and political influence. "The process needs to be above all suspicion," said Horst D. Simon, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. "It's in the interest of the national community that there is not even a cloud of suspicion, and there already is one."

For most of the last two decades, the fastest computers have been at either the national laboratories at Los Alamos, N.M., or Livermore, Calif.