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Dead medium: Dead supercomputers become furniture
From: (Paul Di Filippo)

Source(s): "Serving Wine on the Mainframe" by John Markoff,
New York Times, June 28, 1998

"In supercomputing, the time separating the world's fastest computer from the scrap-metal heap is appallingly short.

"But when it comes to supercomputers, to become obsolescent isn't necessarily to become useless. While many of these machines are mothballed in dank basements, a few are proudly displayed in private homes as though they were objets d'art. They can also make dandy space heaters."


"The life span of a supercomputer, which may cost upwards of $30 million, is typically five years, and sometimes far less. Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee who maintains an annual list of the world's 500 fastest computers, finds that about 250 machines fall off his list yearly.

"But there is no pasture to go out to when a supercomputer is retired. No one reharnesses it to do the billing statements for the local waterworks. The life of a machine is nasty, brutish and short.

"Enter the connoisseurs.

"In a warehouse in suburban Seattle, Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft Corporation's chief scientist, keeps a growing collection now numbering six supercomputers == three early Crays and three Connection Machines made by Thinking Machines Corporation. The Cray 1, designed in 1976 by Seymour Cray, the legendary inventor, was notable in part because it was a round refrigerator-shaped cabinet encircled by a padded bench, which was just the thing for technicians who needed to work on the machine's innards.

"Today, the original Crays have less horsepower than some $1,000 personal computers, but as fashion statements, their time may be here again.

"Mr. Myhrvold is now planning a new home that will rival that of his boss, Bill Gates. It will have a living room big enough for a supercomputer.

"'The key aesthetic is that it is the most expensive sofa in the world,' said Mr. Myhrvold, who bought his machines for their salvage costs or for a few thousand dollars."


"A small living room didn't deter Dan Lynch, an Internet pioneer who was one of the founders of Cybercash. Mr. Lynch, a wine aficionado, says he has a Cray 1 as an objet d'art in his vineyard in the Napa Valley along with 'a bunch of tired old '47 Chevys.'

"While at Convex, a Texas-based supercomputer company, Steven Wallach, a computer designer, once used an Alliant supercomputer in his office as a conversation piece and as partial support for his desk.

"But even Mr. Wallach (...) said he was surprised to learn that another Convex employee had bought a Convex C-1 for its scrap price and was using the computer to heat his garage."

Paul Di Filippo (