WestGrid, one of Canada’s most impressive supercomputing projects, just got a big shot in the arm.

The $50 million initiative to create a collaborative computing infrastructure that’s harnessed by institutions across western Canada now has the backing of IBM Canada.

In a statement Monday, IBM announced its gift of pSeries processors – 128 of them – to the University of Alberta (U of A). pSeries are part of Big Blue’s family of 64-bit, symmetric multiprocessing systems. Their performance levels – in terms of power, flexibility, reliability and manageability – are tailored to cluster-optimized server environments such as large-scale computational modeling and multi-terabyte databases.

The gift is viewed as a bonanza for U of A, WestGrid, and multidisciplinary research in general.

“IBM dramatically discounted the price to make this machine affordable to us,” said Jonathan Schaeffer, a U of A computing science professor and WestGrid co-principal investigator. “It’s not like they gave us $10 million cash. Rather than make us pay, (IBM) has written off most of the cost.”

Schaeffer noted that IBM had lost all U of A procurement competitions for the last decade and really wanted to start working again with the U of A. “They were very generous in their arrangements with us. But every researcher in western Canada benefits because they all have free access to this resource.”

Dedicated high-speed connections make it easier for researchers on desktops in Vancouver to access the supercomputer than it is to cross the University of British Columbia campus, he said.

On its part, IBM said the research being done at U of A is paramount.

“It is important for us to promote and expand research through academic institutions,” said Bernie Kollman, vice president, Public Sector Alberta, IBM Canada Ltd. “We gave (U of A) our most advanced computing technology, packaged with tech services and software.”

According to Kollman, other vendors that could have put together a similar package, with high-end super computing, storage and infrastructure bundled together, include HP, Sun and Silicon Graphics.

“We have people very keen to leverage the technology,” Kollman said. IBM, he said, has helped enhance the network by adding computing capabilities that can be shared among all participating organizations.”

As more products become available to support the WestGrid project IBM will continue to be competitive, she said.