IBM boosts computing capacity at Centre for eResearch

Expansion jointly funded by Auckland and Otago universities

High-performance computing capacity for New Zealand's scientific research community has taken another leap, with the delivery of hardware from IBM which approximately doubles the power available at the University of Auckland's Centre for eResearch.

The added capacity comprises 60 IBM System x iDataPlex nodes and four dual-socket servers, as well as additional storage and virtual machine capability.

Auckland's is one of three high-performance processor arrays linked as the National e-Science Infrastructure (NeSI). This is a four-year, $47 million project, which has been running since mid-2011. The latest increase in capacity was built into the plan, but deferred until Auckland had the physical space available, says NeSI director Nick Jones.

The other partners hosting computer clusters as part of NeSI are The University of Canterbury and NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research), in Wellington, both of whom also utilise IBM infrastructure for high-performance computing.

Other Crown Research Institutes and universities can purchase time on this cluster and other NeSI resources at a discounted rate thanks to funding provided by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

The new equipment was put in just before Christmas and is already fully operational and providing service to researchers, Jones says.

Before the upgrade, the processors in Auckland were using as much as 89 percent of their capacity, he says. The expansion will give the centre more "headroom", but the use of compute power by the nation's researchers continues to grow.

The expansion at Auckland is jointly funded by Auckland and Otago universities and marks the re-entry of Otago as an active partner in the NeSI project. Otago University was originally a NeSI partner alongside AgResearch, but the latter changed its priorities in 2011 and withdrew from NeSI, abandoning plans for a high-performance compute capability at the Invermay research centre. This meant Otago drew back from active involvement until an arrangement could be made for it to partner with Auckland.

The "supercomputer" label is not earned purely by raw processing capacity, but by high-bandwidth transfer of data in and out of the system and between processors and other skilful tuning of the system's components, says Jones. The three sites use different architectures, which makes them suited to particular kinds of work, handling between them the varies needs of the research community. Pooling of capacity among the centres is rare, Jones says; usually a researcher will work entirely on one, though data can be transferred at high speed from one NeSI centre to another

Auckland's Centre for eResearch supports diverse research projects such as:

Simulating the consequences of different arrangements of windmill turbines laid out in a windfarm to maximise their efficiency.

Modelling the movements of planets and asteroids around the solar system into the future, to detect possible collisions and near misses.

Analysing flows of airborne pollutants around a major city, from readings captured from a network of web sensors recording ozone and air quality data every minute.

Jones does not see cloud-based processing eating into the need for dedicated supercomputers, owing to the different profile of scientific and commercial needs. Work on the NeSI centres is queued in a batch mode "and we can do that to a high degree of efficiency", he says. Cloud computing, by contrast, is tuned to balance the needs of a large number of clients and their concurrent and generally smaller tasks.

Jones points to the e-Fiscal project, a just-completed European Community study into sustainable high-performance computing architectures.This has found dedicated sites with well-queued workloads beat cloud computing for scientific work, he says.

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