Supercomputing for the masses is on the horizon as universities prepare to turn high performance computing (HPC) in the cloud into a reality.
This 'democratisation of HPC' gets underway later this year, when Cambridge
University begins leasing processing time on its Darwin supercomputer
to small- and medium-sized businesses.
director of HPC Services at Cambridge, said it would unlock teraflops
of processing power for organisations without the resources to build
their own multimillion-pound server farm.
Darwin is a
20-tonne beast made up of 600 Dell servers, with 2,340 processor cores
capable of 20 teraflops of processing power. This will increase to 30
teraflops with a forthcoming upgrade to Dell blade servers.
It powers complex simulations of everything
from fuel combustion within engines to modelling pharmaceutical
molecules for new drugs.
Speaking at a Dell roundtable on HPC, Calleja said: "Universities should be the mind of UK Plc. There are lots of SMEs who would like to have access to HPC, but cost has been a barrier to entry. We
are already in talks with businesses in a range of sectors such as the
automotive, risk management and pharmaceutical industries."
service will be offered to SMEs during the next quarter of this year
and other universities are also in talks with Cambridge about tapping
into the Darwin's processing power.
The university is
looking at putting commercial fibre into its network, which will
provide multiple 10Gbps links, in preparation for launching the service.
predicted this could be the way of the future, with regional and
central university supercomputer centres providing processing hubs that
could be tapped by users across the country.
[the national education and research network] is looking at shared
services for its data centres; it's only a small step to say 'let's put
a supercomputer in there and have regional HPC centres'," he said.
take-up of supercomputing will also be made easier by the drop in
hardware prices, with high-cost proprietary HPC hardware giving way to
off-the-shelf components and teraflops of processing power available
for a fraction of the previous price.
Because Darwin is
based on commodity hardware, such as Intel Woodcrest processors, it
cost three times less than the Sun system it replaced, while proving to
be 10 times faster.
Dr Chris Rudge, facility manager
for the UK Astrophysics Fluids Facility at Leicester University, said:
"We have just bought five teraflops of processing power for £100,000.
High performance computing is cheaper than it used to be."
flip side of this is the off-the-shelf hardware requires far more
complex software to run in parallel across hundreds of processors,
leading to scientists developing readymade code that can be adapted for
different research projects.
But ultimately, the cloud
model could spell the end for inhouse supercomputer centres at
universities, with Calleja saying he was in talks with a continental
business that had 8,000 servers that were not used overnight.
said: "If it were to work out cheaper per core, then I would use those.
I get no joy from running hardware: it is not interesting to us, it is
just a business process."
Martin Wimmer, director of
the Computer Center at the University of Regensburg in Germany, added
it was now feasible to consider building a supercomputing centre in
He said: "I am considering locating a computing centre where the power is less expensive."