Nottingham to offer 'supercomputing for all'

'Everybody and his dog' will have easy access to supercomputing power through a project at Nottingham University
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor

Nottingham University will start building what it claims is the biggest academic supercomputer, with over 1,000 processors, in Europe next week.

Dr Frazer Pearce, who is leading the project, said the £1.3m supercomputer consists of 512 AMD Opteron processor-based Sun Fire V20z servers and will run at speeds of up to three teraflops. This speed is likely to put the computer in the Top500 supercomputers list.

Nottingham is thought to be the only educational institution in the UK to provide supercomputing facilities to departments such as geography, sociology and other humanities that do not normally use powerful computers, said Pearce. Over 20 departments will have access to the supercomputer.

Each university department that has signed up to the scheme will get an 8-way server that is configured like the supercomputer and which they can access directly from their desktop PCs. Pearce said the aim is to make the system as user-friendly as possible so that researchers can initially run jobs on their clone server and can then transfer them to the supercomputer if more processing power is needed.

"This system gives everybody and his dog a [supercomputing] account, although most won't progress to using the main system," said Pearce. "The hardest bit will be making the system transparent -- so users simply have to log onto the system to set the job running. Linking everything together and making it seamless will get us extra users."

Ensuring that applications are initially run on the clone will also reduce the risk that the supercomputer will crash. "Before they are allowed on the main system, they have to run the code on the clone," said Pearce. "If the clone hangs, they can't put it on the main system."

Nottingham University officials claim that the supercomputer will allow academics to complete a year’s work in just a single day, by enabling them to carry out some calculations more than 100 times faster.

"One clone has more CPU than many [researchers] have in their entire department at the moment," said Pearce.

Other UK universities are also keen to exploit supercomputing. Swansea University is working with IBM to build a supercomputer with a maximum speed of 2.7 teraflops, to carry out life sciences research into life sciences.

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