September 7, 2000 11:25 AM PDT

Cray supercomputer finds afterlife on eBay

If you're looking to buy a supercomputer, you can find one on eBay now.

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is auctioning off a used Cray Research Y-MP C90 supercomputer. With less than two days left in the auction, bidding has reached more than $44,500.

Michael Schneider, a science writer for the supercomputer center, said the idea to auction off the Cray started as a whim. The center recently received funds from the National Science Foundation to build a new supercomputer and needed space for the new system.

Schneider said the company planned to have Cray Research take the computer away, but one of his colleagues at the center half-jokingly suggested selling it on eBay instead. "People got to thinking, 'Why not?'" he said.

"I have to admit, I'm a little bit surprised. I had no idea that there actually would be a market for it."

The Cray C90, which the center placed on eBay on Friday, is not the first high-powered computer to be auctioned on the leading auction site. Sun Microsystems has been experimenting since December with auctioning off some of its servers on San Jose, Calif.-based eBay.

But the Cray machine is in a whole different league from the Sun systems. Using 16 parallel processors and capable of performing 16 billion calculations per second, the C90 sold for around $10 million when it debuted in 1991.

In contrast, the current Apple PowerMac G4 Cube, which can perform about 1 billion calculations per second, sells for about $2,300. And current Cray computers have reached speeds of up to 1 trillion calculations per second, using up to 2048 parallel processors.

The Pittsburgh center took its Cray offline in May 1999, but scientists used the machine in its heyday to create models of all sorts of physical systems requiring complex calculations. While the Pittsburgh machine was used for nonmilitary purposes such as modeling thunderstorms, scientists used similar supercomputers to do nuclear weapons research.

"It's so amazing to me how far and how quickly supercomputers have come along," said Steve Conway, spokesman for Seattle-based Cray. "That 1991-era machine was the awe of the world at that time."

Among the bidders on the machine is Bruce Waldack, chief executive of Alexandria, Va.-based ThruPort Technologies. Waldack bought an Apple I last year for about $50,000 and said he would like to add the Cray to his growing collection of "revolutionary" computers.

"I am a rather eccentric collector of items," Waldack said. "I collect a great many things, but this is a bug that I probably shouldn't have gotten."

If he wins the auction--which he says he is determined to do--Waldack does not plan to put the Cray to work. Instead, he plans to put it on display. And doing that could end up saving him a few dollars to collect a few more classic computers. According to Conway, the C90 costs about $50,000 to $100,000 a year to maintain in working order.

 

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