Cardiff University to play role in “Isambard” supercomputer

San Junipero? (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center).

by Emmaline Rice

As a member of the GW4, Cardiff University has entered into a project with two industry partners to complete a new high performance computer (HPC). The supercomputer will be named after the renowned UK scientist Isambard Kingdom Brunel of the Victorian era. The Isambard project has been funded a sum of 3 million pounds by the Met Office, who hope to stimulate postgraduate research and make the UK a hub for supercomputing through the investment and subsequent construction; the ways in which Isambard could give the UK an edge in the scientific world includes but is not limited to adapting climate modeling programs to run more efficiently on the Isambard processing units. The architecture of the computer– that is, how and of what material and design its processing units are structured and composed– is noted in recent university announcements to be of particular interest.

The chosen manufacturer of Isambard who will work in conjunction with the universities, a company called Cray, is currently known for its usage of a Xeon central processing unit (CPU) in its other HPC. Current technologies that support lighter, more energy-efficient (and thusly less costly and safer to operate because they use less electricity and generate less heat) processing are noted as the CPU architecture of ARM. (This is the architecture most often used in portable devices like smartphones and tablets.) Because Cray’s current supercomputer uses the Xeon technology, it will be an interesting step forward in supercomputing to observe how moving away from the Xeon CPU affects the programs run on the supercomputers, or even how the supercomputers themselves run more or less efficiently. In fact, Professor Simon McIntosh-Smith (from the University of Bristol) who leads the project notes the potential to expand the CPU architectures of supercomputing as one of the most exciting hallmarks of the project itself. Isambard will employ not just one ARM-based architecture, but instead, he notes, “Choosing the best architecture for an application can be a difficult task, so the new Isambard GW4 Tier 2 HPC service aims to provide access to a wide range of the most promising emerging architectures, all using the same software stack.” Using more than one type of CPU architecture should lend the supercomputer flexibility and dynamic ability to process data.

So how will this new breed of supercomputer be useful? The academics currently involved have cited multiple areas of scientific research which the supercomputer can begin optimising coding for as well as generating algorithms to further the research. This will be largely helpful in areas that involve massive computations, like computational chemistry, computational engineering, etc. Other salient applications include how the supercomputer will be used to understand how climate modeling for atmospheric physics and the like will need to be adapted in code for an HPC. This step forward in supercomputing observes Cardiff University’s continued involvement in the forefront of scientific inquiry and technologies, and will place South East Wales firmly on the map of global supercomputing with the sheer innovation of Isambard.

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