HECToR - The next stage of super computing

19 February 2012

Interview with

Professor Arthur Trew, Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre; Dr Carole Morrison, University of Edinburgh

Chris -   This week, one of the world's fastest computers just got 10 times more powerful.  It's called HECToR - Edinburgh University's building size supercomputer - and it now has over 90 terabytes of memory and it can do 800 million million calculations every second.  It's intended to help UK and European researchers to solve some serious scientific problems including things like forecasting the impact of climate change in the future, and predicting the spread of epidemics, and maybe even developing new drugs.  Our reporter James Harrison has been to Edinburgh to meet HECToR for himself.

James -   The noise you can hear in the background is coming from the cooling system for a computer so powerful that each one of these 30 or so cabinets in front of me consumes the same amount of power as 80 one bar electric fires.  This High End Computing Terra Scale Resource, or HECToR for short, represents about 12,000 desktop systems and the calculations they're capable of performing will keep UK research at the forefront in such diverse areas as engineering, medicine, climate change, and environmental protection.  Professor Arthur Trew is Director of the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre...

The Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Argonne National LabArthur -   Well this supercomputer is capable of doing some 800 million million calculations per second.  An easier way to think of it is maybe to say that it's 100,000 calculations per second for every man, woman and child on the planet.  HECToR also has an enormous amount of memory.  It stores the data on disk just like in your laptop except it's got a petabyte of disk space.  That's 1,000 million million million million bytes worth of disk.  If you have this much in your iPod and you stored music on it, and started listening today, you'd finish in the year 3153.

James -   Until more recently, scientists spent much of their time testing theories and ideas by experimentation.  But now, with the availability of such facilities as HECToR, adding the power of supercomputing has moved science to another level altogether.

Arthur -   The climate is an obvious example of this.  You don't want to experiment on the world and the theory is just too complicated.  You can't sit down with a pencil and paper.  So what we do with a computer is we take those equations that we know and we solve them using the computer to do what the scientist with the pencil cannot.  That is to dissect the world, if you like, so that we solve the climate or the weather for a little bit of Edinburgh, a little bit of London, and you stitch them all together to produce a picture of the entire globe and then run that forward for the next 100 years and try to get deeper understanding.  It's a complimentary approach to doing science.  There are some 50 different research groups from around the UK that are using the facility.  They span the range from biology and drug design through engineering, chemistry, and all the way to the environment.

James -   The running of HECToR is managed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on behalf of Research Councils UK.  Being able to predict the effects of global climate change or the way bones are formed were once considered impossible tasks, but now, supercomputing is helping scientists in the UK and around the world work toward solutions.  Dr. Carole Morrison is a senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh.

Carole -    So an example of where the work we're doing fits in with medical science is in looking at the disease pathways of things like Parkinson's and diabetes for instance.  Both of these diseases, the mechanisms of the disease at the atomic level, depend on knowing what hydrogen atoms are doing, the protons.  So, these are responsible for dictating the pH of your cells, for instance, because you can transfer hydrogen ions in and out of chemical cells and they're also involved with energy transfer, and so on.  If you can understand how hydrogen ions can get in and out of cells, then it will allow you to be able to say something sensible about the reaction mechanisms of these diseases. That then opens up the possibility of being able to design new drugs and so on that might help in the cure of these diseases.

James -   But just as with our own personal computers, this technology isn't standing still.

Arthur -   We're just about to move on to phase 3 of HECToR which is going to be roughly 10 times the performance of HECToR when it started.  This opens up a whole series of new problems that we can start to deal with.

James -   And for Carole Morrison, while HECToR's current processing power has already produced important answers in the study of molecular interaction, the next phase of HECToR promises to build on those results, allowing future scientists to produce models that will get even closer to solving the world's biggest disease related issues.

Carole -   Phase 3 HECToR will allow us to be able to expand on our model.  We want to adapt it.  We want to modify it to make it even more realistic.  You write up your work, it appears in a journal, you publish it and who knows, maybe somebody somewhere will read it and it will be that piece of the puzzle, that clue, that they need to be able to take our understanding of diseases like Parkinson's, like diabetes to the next level.

Helen -   Dr. Carole Morrison at the University of Edinburgh ending that report on the next stage of the development of the HECToR supercomputer launched this week by science minister David Willetts.

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