Green supercomputer unveiled in Edinburgh

Machine known as 'Maxwell' uses field programmable gate arrays which enable speed and efficiency

A supercomputer 10 times more energy efficient and up to 300 times faster than its traditional equivalents has been unveiled in Edinburgh.

Called Maxwell, the computer has been built at the University of Edinburgh and uses field programmable gate arrays (FPGA) in place of conventional microprocessors.

Its Scottish developers believe Maxwell represents a new generation of compact and energy-efficient computers.

FPGA chips differ from standard microprocessors as the silicon can be rewired for specific uses. This means the computer can work more quickly and efficiently.

The technology also has the benefits of requiring less space and running much more coolly than equivalent machines. Maxwell only takes up two computer racks at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC).

The main issue with the technology at the moment is that it is very difficult to programme.

Mark Parsons, commercial director of the EPCC, which co-developed Maxwell, admitted: "It's still difficult for commercial use." But Parsons added that once this problem is cracked — in the next two to three years — FPGA tech could really take off.

Regarding Maxwell's place in "green" computing, Parsons said: "You've got to look at novel technologies."

He added that Intel is exploring possible uses of FPGA.

The computer has already been tested with high-demand applications from the oil and gas, financial and medical imaging industries. With the financial application, Parsons said Maxwell ran at between two and 300 times faster than an equivalent system using standard microprocessors.

Other industries that could take advantage of Maxwell include drug design, defence and seismology.

Maxwell has been developed by the FPGA High Performance Computing Alliance — led by the EPCC — during the last two years. The £3.6m project has been funded partly by the Scottish Enterprise, a development agency.

The computer was designed and built by Scottish SMEs Nallatech and Alpha Data. It uses FPGA technology from Xilinx.