‘High-performance computing has become a fundamental part of research’

30 May 2022

JC Desplat, director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing. Image: Bryan Meade

ICHEC director Prof JC Desplat discusses the research fields utilising high-performance computing and the centre’s work in the quantum space.

Prof Jean-Christophe (‘JC’) Desplat is director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC). A technology expert with more than 25 years’ experience in high-performance computing (HPC), his interest lies in the innovative use of these technologies in emerging domains.

In 2017, Desplat shared his insights with SiliconRepublic.com on how company culture can be nurtured and why Arsène Wenger can be considered a business hero. Here, he discusses the impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on ICHEC and the current research areas the centre is focused on.

‘It is important that the deeply engrained silo approach to technology that prevailed for the past decades does not scupper opportunities for Ireland’

Describe some of the issues you’ve faced in your role during the Covid-19 pandemic.

ICHEC is Ireland’s national centre for high-performance computing hosted by NUI Galway, but is a technology-focused organisation with a very multinational staff base. My first challenge was the same as every employer who had to manage staff from domestic environments under restrictions.

Currently, the challenge is not only to find suitably qualified specialist staff willing to relocate to Ireland, but also to retain them within the difficult environment we all know (cost of living, housing crisis, chronic skills shortage, etc).

In addition to this we are also competing with the private sector for the same talent – where they offer higher wages and various other perks, we offer exciting career trajectories with high levels of job satisfaction.

At an operational level, service provision was not significantly affected by Covid-19 restrictions as our processes are distributed by design. Users and stakeholders reported no degradation in the quality of service and expressed their gratitude for this.

How has HPC developed in the last few years?

Covid-19 coincided with a burgeoning increase in demand for HPC services. HPC has become a fundamental part of research and scientific advancement across all disciplines and particularly in climate informatics, digital twins of Earth systems, healthcare and medicine, and material sciences.

Significant technological disruption is also taking place as we speak, with several digital technologies coalescing into a ‘digital continuum’. The most significant innovation of this decade will take pace within this continuum, and it is important that the deeply engrained silo approach to technology that prevailed for the past decades does not scupper opportunities for Ireland.

Which research fields are benefitting the most from HPC modelling?

HPC is multidisciplinary cutting across all research fields and areas. Its traditional benefits include shortened time to solution (near-real time in extreme cases), high throughput applications (such as cheminformatics to screen candidate molecules for drug design), and large-scale or computationally demanding models (such as for materials design or climate models).

In order for Ireland to sustain its ambition though, significant investments will be required to transition to the type of new data-centric platforms introduced earlier. While traditional HPC platforms such as Kay have served well those researchers with large compute-bound problems, it no longer offers the necessary features and flexibility for advanced data-centric workflows and applications.

In Ireland, this situation resulted in significant cohorts of researchers being left without the necessary tools and platforms to progress internationally competitive research. Emerging communities such as those leveraging artificial intelligence, precision medicine and many others, as well as those requiring access to large data collections, have been particularly penalised by the limitations of the current infrastructure.

What sort of work has the ICHEC been doing in terms of climate?

The climate modelling research at ICHEC involves working with national partners such as the EPA, Met Eireann, Marine Institute, SEAI, OPW and GSI to simulate climate change on a global and national scale, as well as reconstructing the historical climate of Ireland.

The first major component of the climate research at ICHEC involves simulating climate change on a global scale using the EC-Earth Earth System Model. A large ensemble of EC-Earth simulations was run on the ICHEC supercomputing system.

These simulations comprise Ireland’s contribution to the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) and their results informed the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was published in August 2021.

A second component of ICHEC’s climate modelling research involves simulating the future climate on a national (and European) scale at fine detail. This research involves downscaling CMIP data to provide high-resolution regional climate projections for Ireland using both standard atmosphere-only and coupled atmosphere-ocean-wave regional climate models.

The ICHEC climate team also works on improving the observational climate data record of Ireland by simulating the historical climate at very fine detail. The resulting datasets have the potential to be utilised in a wide range of applications, including agricultural, public health, energy, insurance, socioeconomic planning and fundamental studies in observed climate change trends and variability.

Can you tell us about the platform ICHEC is working on to provide researchers with access to health data?

ICHEC was awarded funding from the Health Research Board to develop prototype infrastructure to support safe and secure access to and linkage of health and related data for research. This infrastructure separates personal data from the medical data.

It can then link individuals based on their identifying information across those datasets and replace this information with a meaningless identifier to protect the identity of individuals. A locked down secure environment has also been developed to allow approved researchers to safely access and analyse this pseudonymised data.

Facilitating safe and secure researcher access to health and related data will have immense benefits for public health. Therefore, ICHEC are also working with the relevant stakeholders on the governance and legislative requirements for the roll-out of a national infrastructure on completion of this proof of concept.

What are ICHEC’s goals for its Quantum Programming Initiative (QPI)?

Our quantum initiative is progressing to plan and we are optimistic that in the current year we will be making further announcements as part of QPI.

Our current focus is on two fronts. First, with the development and provision of upskilling programmes, in close association with Skillnet Ireland and HEIs, to anticipate and address a rapid growth in demand for quantum programming skills across industry.

Second, with the development of novel algorithms for hybrid computing. This new model represents the leading edge of quantum programming and as such is an area of strategic importance.

As illustrated throughout a European Council Regulation and the EuroQCS joint white paper, HPC and quantum computing must be considered as closely related technologies and the ability to combine their strength within a single platform represents a domain where Europe can legitimately claim global leadership. 

Finally, we are committed to developing further partnership programmes with industry, such as the successful Quantum PFAS Chemicals Remediation recently completed with Accenture Labs.

Which SME sectors are showing the most demand for advanced modelling techniques?

What is interesting with the SME sectors is the diversity of domains that are now realising the potential of HPC when coupled with the vast amounts of data that every organisation has access to.

Traditional sectors such as health, finance and large manufacturing continue to have a large demand for HPC, but non-traditional sectors such as construction, services and light manufacturing have realised the potential of HPC.

ICHEC offers accessible programmes such as the EuroCC SME Accelerator and demand is growing – we currently have a waiting list of companies looking to access HPC expertise. This is evidence of the reality that HPC is becoming mainstream and is accessed by many companies using web-based service providers.

However, maintaining skills in the fast-moving domains, accessing and retrieving data from the cloud creates problems downstream which commercial enterprises should be wary of.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic