Sunday, June 17, 2012

PRACE at International SuperComputing’12 – a game of two halves

Travelling round Europe during Euro 2012 can be a lively experience – in Amsterdam the orange bunting is fluttering in abundance in the streets; in Hamburg this weekend the cars all seem to have sprouted flags from their bonnets and an overactive set of car horns. I’m here for this year’s International SuperComputing event, kicking off with the PRACE workshop on Sunday. The second half will be on Tuesday with the announcement of the Future Technologies Evaluation results. Hopefully with no own goals or questions lobbed in from offside in the meantime….

Maria Ramalha, Chair of the Board of Directors for PRACE, introduced us to PRACE (Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe), which since 2010 has worked to create a persistent pan-European Research Infrastructure, providing High Performance Computing services for researchers and industry. The infrastructure provides peer reviewed access to HPC resources in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Kostas Glinos, Head of the European Commission’s GÉANT and e-Infrastructures Unit outlined the importance of HPC across the world. The US believes being able to out-compute competitors equals out-competing them. Japan already has the largest HPC system in the world, the K computer and China is making multi-billion dollar investments in this area. India also announced a one billion dollar programme for its own supercomputing machine in March 2012. Meanwhile, Europe has lost 10% of its HPC capabilities since 2007, while both Asia and the US have increased. At the moment, Europe takes a fragmented approach across its different member states, relies heavily on foreign components and is not capitalising on its IPR fully, leaving others to reap the benefits. Europe represents 24% of HPC usage, for example in academia, biosciences, engineering, government and defence, but provides only 4% of the systems supply.

However, Europe does have strong potential in the areas of applications and codes, offers deep and diverse HPC user experience and has leading capabilities in certain areas, such as power efficient microelectronics. In April this year, the European Commission published a strategy communication advising member states on the way forward for HPC. This covered a number of key policy actions, looking at improving governance at a European level and issuing a recommendation to double investment nationally in HPC, as well as at European level and in industry. Kostas welcomed PRACE’s proposal to extend services for industry and urges PRACE, and others, to develop the EU’s native capacity via pre-commercial tendering and by pooling resources. HPC Consultant, Wolfgang Gentzsch pointed out that industry needs help to use HPC resources effectively, and the EC strategy also recommends training, workshops and competency centres aimed at industry. Similarly, the EC is looking to provide a level playing field for the European HPC supply industry.

The next EC funding framework programme, Horizon2020, will include funding actions to set up HPC centres of excellence, perhaps targeted to particular research communities such as the life sciences, as well as hardware and software design centres. Richard Kenway, Chair of the PRACE Scientific Steering Committee stressed that the aim is to be user-driven. Some scientific communities are more structured than others – but everyone seems to be concerned about how to move large quantities of data around. Interoperability will also be important – depending on their application, users don’t necessarily care whether their resources are from HPC or grids such as the European Grid Infrastructure at the end of the day… but they urgently need tools and professional software that can give them access to the resources they need to solve their own particular computational problems.

“Europe is ready to run the HPC race,” summarised Glinos. Europe has expertise across the full supply chain that it can build on and the race to solve the challenges of exascale computing provides a particular window of opportunity – but a joint European effort is needed. To push the football metaphor a bit further, HPC has to be a team game if we want to reach our goal of achieving a world-beating result.

Just don’t ask me to explain the offside rule.

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