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Tuesday, 01 May 2012 09:30

Supercomputers speed into higher ed

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University and research supercomputing is being revolutionised by the march of platforms built using commodity graphics processor chips used in games machines and mobile phones. Queensland University of Technology and the University of Melbourne are the latest to take the plunge.

QUT has announced that it is adding 54 new processor nodes supplied by SGI to upgrade its high performance computing (HPC) system. The university's processing requirements have grown 30 per cent every six months, necessitating the upgrade.

According to a media release issued by SGI the upgrade was also triggered by the launch of QUT's $230 million Science and Engineering Centre scheduled to open this year and house 500 staff and students.  Chris Bridge, director of Information Technology Services at QUT said this centre; 'Will address crucial community infrastructure development issues lying at the intersections of greenhouse emissions, energy consumption, land use, construction technologies and materials research.

'The crucial building blocks underpinning the SEC research program are mathematics, computation, simulation and e-research where increasingly complex computational challenges need to be addressed. These new developments, along with QUT's expanding research profile, were the driving force behind this HPC upgrade.'

Meanwhile  Xenon has worked with the University of Melbourne to build the first node of the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources (NeCTAR) research cloud which went live in February.

Melbourne was commissioned by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) to host and install the first node of the NeCTAR research cloud. Additional nodes of the cloud will be built by other universities and research institutions throughout 2012.

The University uses two data centres for the NeCTAR project, which currently operates 3,840 cores and is expected to reach 25,000 cores nationally during the next 18 months.


The request for proposal for the second stage of NeCTAR opened yesterday seeking responses from companies able to build virtual laboratories and research cloud nodes. The ANU is also proposing establishing a NeCTAR node, along with Monash which has a five year $4 million plan to roll out infrastructure based on around 5,300 commodity cores.

While there is still demand for what might be considered more traditional 'monolithic' supercomputers - an IBM Blue Gene has been installed at the University of Melbourne in its life sciences research unit for example - there is rising demand for systems built from banks of graphics processor chips which are often cheaper and less power hungry.

In April CSIRO announced it was installing a Xenon computing cluster powered by 268 Intel Xeon E5-2650 processors (2,144 CPU cores) and feature 390 Nvidia Tesla GPU cards (174,720 GPU cores). The deal was priced at around the $1 million mark.

Last July Swinburne University of Technology announced it had signed a contract with SGI for the first phase of a $3 million supercomputer which would power a national high performance computing facility for astronomers and also have additional grunt left over for Swinburne researchers.

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