Quebec supercomputer site taps shared memory

The Quebec Network for High-Performance Computing (RQCHP) unveiled a shared-memory supercomputer Wednesday, a machine it called the most powerful of its kind in the country and which will be made available to scientists all over Canada via the burgeoning pan-Canadian high-performance computing network.

RQCHP’s supercomputer is basd SGI’s Altix 4700, which the organization determined as having the most value, said RQCHP’s Université de Montreal site director Michel Côté.

“The memory can be accessed by all the processors,” he said. “Clustered” supercomputers can only access their own memory and have to use a multiprocessor interface to communicate with each other, meaning that information can only be processed in very little chunks, said Côté. “With shared-memory, scientific processes and problems can be cast in different ways that will benefit from the better architecture,” he said.

The supercomputer will include 384 dual-core Intel Itanium 2 processors and 1536GB of RAM, which can, in theory, combine to pump out 4.9 teraflops. Côté said that there are over 100 groups of scientists within RQCHP who are in line to use the supercomputer. Each of them will develop their own software to run their projects. This multitude of programs, said Côté, should all run smoothly together, courtesy of the network-provided compilers such as Java, Fortran, and C. The groups will have an allocation of time per year; their jobs are submitted into a queuing system.

They already have quite a few ambitious supercomputing projects on the go, including heart simulations (complete with blood flow), nanotechnology experiments geared toward building a better superconductor, in-depth financial analysis, and attempts at noise reduction in cars and airplanes and mixing medicine components better.

SGI contributed $8 million toward the $11 million price-tag of the Altix 4700, while the remaining $3 million was split between federal and provincial monies. Yet members of the RQCHP aren’t the only scientists who will get to use the Altix 4700: the RQCHP is a member of the recently announced pan-Canadian high-performance computing network — tentatively named Compute Canada, according to Côté — that will make it easier for those needing supercomputers for their research to tap into all the various high-performance computing networks across the country.

“We are competitive among ourselves, but we’re also collaborative,” said Côté. “We want to be used by all scientists in Canada.”

Côté said that the next phase of the national network will see them get organized and begin to facilitate better sharing and availability of machines, a process that is already underway, according to Rob Simmonds, the CTO of WestGrid, the Alberta-based high-performance computing consortium. The national network received a $10-million grant from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council that will help with ongoing and staffing costs, which will help RQCHP maintain their new supercomputer.

“Certainly this shared-memory system is capable of solving some kinds of problems, like the number of processes that require more memory,” said Simmonds.

Despite its current utility, the rate at which supercomputers are becoming bigger and better render even the fanciest model obsolete very quickly, but both Côté and Simmonds say that this is the cost of doing science. Simmonds said, “You have to invest in them — they may have a limited life, but if you want to do science, you have to have the computing resources.”

“We have to maintain competivity, and make these (supercomputers) freely available to scientists,” said Côté. “If we don’t do this, scientists will fall out and not compete at the international level, and there will be less output to Canada — this is an investment to do research that benefits the whole society.”

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