Australian supercomputer reaches for the stars

Selection of a site is underway for a cluster of Intel CPUs designed to work together to produce cosmological simulations

A cluster of 240 Intel CPUs at Swinburne University of Technology will be among the world's 50 fastest computers and only the second system in Australia capable of performing one teraflop (one trillion floating-point operations per second).

The cluster will be used for cosmological simulations as well as engineering simulations of the proposed Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

Professor Brad Gibson of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne said planning for the SKA has already begun, even though some of the required technologies are not expected to materialise for 10 years or so.

The SKA will allow astronomers to look back to the "dark age" -- the field of primordial gas that existed before stars shone. According to Gibson, it should be built in Australia because of the relatively low levels of electromagnetic interference. He said outback Western Australia would be a good location, but warned that "there is a lot of political manoeuvring" around the site selection process.

Other applications for the supercomputer include molecular modelling, brain simulations, rendering 3D VR movies, and the 'virtual Milky Way' project aimed at school students as part of the university's public outreach programme.

The recent purchase of 90 dual 2.2GHz Xeon processors was funded jointly by internal sources and the federal and Victorian governments. Intel provided an additional 30 units, and Dell also supported the project. The bulk of the hardware is located at Swinburne's Hawthorn campus in Melbourne, with the remainder at the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales.

Intel has also donated a quad-processor Itanium 2 system to the Centre. According to Gibson, the higher performance of this CPU and its larger memory space has the potential to reduce processing times from weeks to days.

Intel has contributed a total of AU$300,000 (about £107,000) in hardware, software and services, Swinburne officials said.

At the official opening of the facility, Intel chief executive Craig Barrett said his company was "very happy to give our support."

Intel produced the first massively parallel Teraflop system with 7200 200MHz processors in 1996, he said, and "anytime you need an immense amount of computational power, these facilities are appropriate."

But not everyone is so positive about clusters. "The world of clustered PCs as a substitute for supercomputing is in tatters right now," Australian expatriate Bob Bishop, chairman and chief executive of SGI, told ZDNet Australia.

"It's called B-grade science... causing Australians to think they have high-performance computing when they don't, and they can't be part of the leading edge."

Clusters give theoretical horsepower, he said, but you can't get good utilisation of those processor cycles when modelling complex, non-linear systems. "You bought them cheaply, but you can't use them," he said.

Under-funded scientists have been pushed into using clusters, but that's trapped them in a dead end, suggested Bishop, who has a degree in mathematical physics. Australia needs to be globally competitive in science and engineering, he said, but that means building the necessary IT capabilities. Australian scientists and engineers are "totally under-funded for the problems of the 21st century," he warned.

"The bottom line for us... is the price-performance ratio," said Gibson. "This is the best compromise and still gives us great performance."


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