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British universities get £3 million to build an ARM supercomputer

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January 19, 2017

We just learned today that a fellowship of four British universities, along with HPC veteran Cray and the Met Office, have been given £3 million to build a 10,000+ ARM core supercomputer that will be used by the four universities.

The project could settle once and for all the ongoing question whether ARM-based supercomputers can truly beat Xeons on cost while offering the right computing performance.

The initiative is called 'Isambard' after 19th century British engineering heavyweight Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was revealed by Professor Simon McIntosh, the leader of the effort and professor of High Performance Computing at the University of Bristol.

Four southwest universities: Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter, form the GW-4 Alliance. The project will work with what it calls 2 industry partners-– Cray and the Met Office, to build the Isambard system, which will be hosted by the Met Office.

The universities are receiving the £3 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research in Britain.

In a press announcement, McIntosh said-- “Scientists have a growing choice of potential computer architectures to choose from, including new 64-bit ARM CPUs, graphics processors, and many-core CPUs from Intel. Choosing the best computer architecture for an application can be a challenging task, so the new Isambard GW4 Tier 2 HPC system aims to provide access to a wide range of the most promising emerging architectures, all using the same software stack."

"Isambard is a unique system that will enable direct ‘apples-to-apples’ comparisons across architectures, thus enabling British scientists to better understand which architecture best suits their application,” he asserted.

Although this implies the Isambard project will have multiple compute hardware architectures, it appears that the installation will be mostly ARM-based.

McIntosh added: “It’s one of the largest scale ARMv8 64-bit production machines ever built. And it’s the first time Cray has explicitly announced an ARMv8 solution meant for more than just prototyping.”

It will also feature some x86 CPUs, Knights Landing Xeon Phi co-processors, and NVIDIA P-100 GPUs.

Cray’s clustered CS-400 uses Xeon E-52600-v4 CPUS and optionally supports Phi co-processors and NVIDIA Tesla GPUs plus FDR InfiniBand, QDR True Scale or Intel’s Omni-Path interconnects.

Adrian Tate, director of Cray’s EMEA Research Lab, said that Cray would build an 'Isambard' centre of excellence.

“We are excited to be a part of this important collaboration with GW4 and the Met Office as we work together to explore and evaluate diverse, modern processing technologies within a unified architecture. By building a Centre of Excellence with GW4 and various technology partners, we expect deep insights into application efficiency using new processing technologies,” asserted McIntosh.

Isambard will offer a tier-2 HPC service to Britain-based scientists. Paul Selwood, Manager for HPC Optimization at the Met Office said-- “This system will enable us to accelerate insights into how our weather and climate models need to be adapted for these emerging CPU architectures.”

Source: The Isambard Centre of Excellence.


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