The subtle power of high-performance computing

16 Jun 2016

Energy measurement on accelerators at ICHEC. Copyright ICHEC 2016

Ireland can be a world leader in high-performance computing, which drives research and innovation, writes ICHEC director Prof JC Desplat.

Research Week

How often do you look at the weather forecast? Or use electricity? And if you go to the hospital for a test, wouldn’t you like to get results there and then?

Life in the 21st century runs more smoothly on information that is distilled quickly from vast amounts of data, and ICHEC (the Irish Centre for High End Computing), is fuelling research in Ireland to get the information we need when we need it.

In fact, ICHEC is something of a quiet force in Irish research, where the increasingly vast amounts of data being generated and analysed necessitates smart approaches. For the last 10 years, we have been supporting and working with well over 1,000 researchers here, providing a kind of ‘dark energy’ to drive discovery and innovation.

Inspirefest 2016

Helping the non-supercomputers

ICHEC manages the Irish supercomputer Fionn, but Ireland will never have the resources to match, much less exceed, the supercomputing power of larger nations. So much of our work at ICHEC is about making the ‘not-so-super’ microprocessors in laptops, sensors and servers run better. Through our expertise and technical ability, we can take software that typically runs at 10pc efficiency and increase that three or four-fold via better use of the hardware.

Such high-performance computing (HPC) leads to faster delivery of results, the ability to answer larger scale questions, smarter designs that improve energy efficiency and better capacity to deal with high-throughput data. This is where ICHEC delivers results for industry, the public sector and academic research.

‘For the last 10 years, we have been supporting and working with well over 1,000 researchers here, providing a kind of ‘dark energy’ to drive discovery and innovation’

Closing the time window

Through high-performance computing, we have worked with the financial sector to perform real-time risk simulations using Monte Carlo-based techniques, reducing the time for data analysis from several minutes down to just a few seconds.

We have also accelerated medical devices research at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Dublin City University. Led by Prof Dermot Kenny, the project is developing a blood test for early detection of a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke. It uses imaging to measure how platelets in the blood sample behave and, by working with these partners, ICHEC has reduced the turnaround time of results from more than 24 hours to just a few minutes.

The project is now being further developed through a consortium that includes BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), demonstrating how combining clinical and diagnostic expertise in Irish research with ICHEC’s capabilities can attract global companies to the table.

ICHEC High Performance FPGA Cluster

High Performance FPGA Cluster. Copyright ICHEC 2016

More scale and energy

It’s not only about speed and efficiency. High-performance computing also lets us tackle questions of bigger scale.

We see the fruits of large-scale modelling every evening on our TV screens, too. ICHEC works with Met Éireann to build models that support more detailed weather forecasts and, as part of an international community, to model climate change.

ICHEC has also driven the analysis of large volumes of DNA sequencing data by researchers in Ireland to discover more about the origins and workings of life. In economic and societal areas of interest, ICHEC is helping organisations such as the Central Statistics Office and Eurostat to enrich their reporting and prediction models with new data sources and processing methods, such as using traffic patterns to predict the performance of the economy. We are also tackling society’s need for more and cleaner energy by aiding exploration for oil and gas, and modelling of renewable power from solar, wind and waves.

Energy efficiency is a key design challenge for future computing systems, ranging from large-scale data centres to wireless embedded devices. A primary research goal at ICHEC is to improve the energy efficiency of computing systems across all layers – spanning software applications, system software and computer hardware architectures.

For example, ICHEC is a partner in the Horizon 2020 READEX project, which brings together European experts from different ends of the computing spectrum (embedded and HPC) to develop state-of-the-art tools to reduce the energy consumption of software applications on emerging large-scale computing systems.

ICHEC Irish mosaic (ESA Sentinel)

Irish Mosaic: Sentinel-1A satellite takes us over to Ireland, in this multi-temporal colour composite of land coverage across the island. Copyright ESA 2015. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2015], processed by ESA

High throughput out of this world

One of the most exciting new sources of information for high-performance computing comes from satellites that orbit Earth, transmitting data about land, sea and atmosphere back to us around the clock.

High-performance computing allows us to extract more from this torrent of information, and ICHEC is now setting up a portal for Irish researchers and industry to analyse and use satellite data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel programme. Harnessing such data will feed research that stands to improve land use, coastal protection and enterprise, and we will generate even better weather and climate models.

By Prof JC Desplat

JC Desplat, ICHEC

Prof JC Desplat, director, ICHEC. Copyright ICHEC 2016

Prof JC Desplat is a technology expert with over 25 years’ experience in high-performance computing. His particular interest lies in the innovative use of HPC technologies in emerging domains. Desplat has served as advisor to a number of committees in Ireland and abroad, including the strategic advisory team of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the ICT sub-committee of the Irish Medical Council. He is honorary professor of computational science at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and adjunct professor in the School of Physics at NUI Galway. ________________________________________________