Ontario offers $20M boost to HPC

The Ontario government poured more than $20 million into the province’s high-performance computer sector Friday, boosting operational support for networks that serve most of its post-secondary research institutions.

Much of the money, $11.5 million, will go towards the High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL), led by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. Another $10.5 million has been earmarked for the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network (SHARCNet). The investment from the Ontario Research Fund was announced by the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities on behalf of Ontario Premier and Minister of Innovation Dalton McGuinty.

Both HPCVL and SHARCNet run large systems that are used by academia on a range of university researchers in areas such as particle physics, biology and chemistry, among others. HPCVL members comprise more of the Eastern Ontario schools including Royal Military College, Carleton and the University of Ottawa. SHARCNet takes in McMaster University and 14 others.

HPCVL executive director Ken Edgecombe said the two consortia applied for the funding two years ago as part of the Ontario R&D Challenge, but the province deferred its decision pending the creation of a formal HPC policy. Over the last year, the government has established the Ontario HPC Council, which includes both SHARCNet and HPCVL as well as SciNet, an HPC facility operated by the University of Toronto. 

“This (money) is basically to help us with our user support – to make sure people are able to use the system to do things effectively,” he said. “There will be some infrastructure, but it will be minor amounts.”

HPCVL is dealing with growth issues, including the addition of community colleages such as Seneca and Loyalist to the consortium. SHARCNet has been doing the same thing, bringing on Trent University, Lakehead and the Ontario College of Art and Design. The public sector cash will in part be devoted to integrating the HPC clusters with these other institutions.

The operational costs of the HPC facilities are not limited to the infrastructure itself, explained Hough Couchman, SHARCNet’s scientific director. The largest system in SHARCNet – a 3,000-processor machine – is mostly managed by a single system administrator and a technical support person who works with users. In all, SHARCNet employs nine dedicated full-time staff, he said.

“If you looked at anything in Europe or U.S. for a system of that size, they would have a minimum of six people,” he said. “We can’t offer all the services that they would offer, but I think we do a very good job of keeping lean and working with those kinds of resources.”

Two years ago, both SHARCNet and HPCVL started looking at opportunities to work more closely together, sharing resources and potentially getting projects completed more quickly. Couchman said he believes that’s one of the things that attracted the government’s attention, and Edgecombe agreed that the province expects to see good value for its money.

SHARCNet has concentrated on HPC through clustered systems, because members believed that was a good way to maximize bang for the buck, Couchman said, while HPCVL has set up larger shared memory systems. If a HPCVL researcher thought their project would be better served by SHARCNet or vice-versa, Couchman added, should be able to work with the other network in the future.

“Perhaps through a happy accident, in fact, at the hardware level, we have a fairly complementary architecture,” he said. “We want to set things up so it’s essentially seamless and transparent for (researchers).” 

Edgecombe noted the growth of HPC facilities in other provinces, which, like Ontario’s, have primarily received public sector funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

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