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Australia Buys the World’s Largest Life Sciences Supercomputer

The IBM machine will reportedly have 64,000 cores at delivery in 2012.

July 29, 2010 | The Victoria Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) in Victoria, Australia, has announced that it will have the world’s largest life sciences-dedicated supercomputer by 2012. The purchased IBM Blue Gene machine is expected to have around 64,000 cores, says Justin Zobel, professor of computer science and software engineering at the University of Melbourne, and head of the supercomputer project.

Zobel believes that a supercomputer of this power is essential to advancing life science research. “A machine of that size enables you to envision things you would not otherwise consider,” says Zobel. “It’s the exact opposite of [cloud computing]. The cloud is a very standardized computing resource available in a very flexible way at any scale depending on what you’re prepared to pay for…. But it doesn’t provide supercomputing. A bunch of computers in the same place is not the same as supercomputing.”

Zobel mentions “modeling organs based on a detailed simulation of the individual cells of the organ—such as the heart or brain,” as a potential project for the supercomputer, but the specifics are up to the researchers using the machine. “We want to see projects of that scale—things that are genuinely revolutionary—become enabled here in Victoria,” he says.

Victoria has more than 10,000 life sciences researchers based in the state capital at the University of Melbourne and at several other research institutes in the area. The Victorian government wanted to underpin some of the life sciences research going on in the state with a strong commitment to computing. In addition to partially funding the purchase of the supercomputer itself, the government set up the Victoria Life Sciences Computation Initiative.

“What the VLSCI includes is a decent sized team of people, some of whom are IBM employees, some of whom are VLSCI employees, whose job it is to help life scientists make the best use of the machine,” explains Zobel.

The supercomputer itself will be housed in the Peak Computing Facility, the heart of the VLSCI. The PCF currently houses an SGI Altix with 3 racks, 1088 cores, and 10 teraflops that is in use. An IBM iDataPlex machine of 78 nodes capable of 6.6 teraflops has been delivered. The Blue Gene will come in two phases: a  Blue Gene/P 8192-core machine capable of 27 teraflops will arrive in a few weeks. The 2012 machine should be about 20 times that capacity. Once that supercomputer is delivered, the Blue Gene/P will be returned to IBM, but the iDataPlex and Altix machines will stay.

The VLSCI was announced two years ago, and the Initiative is staffed jointly by University of Melbourne researchers and IBM researchers. The university and IBM opened a collaborative laboratory in mid-February, which Zobel calls an outpost of IBM’s Watson Research Center.

Compute power on the supercomputer will be open to all Victoria-based researchers and subject to a grant process in which projects are granted compute time and support time based on scientific merit. The grant process is open now, and Zobel hopes to be creating user accounts on the Blue Gene/P by early August.

This article also appeared in the July-August 2010 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine. Subscriptions are free for qualifying individuals. Apply today.

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