UQ Has a Super-Powerful Supercomputer, and Researchers Are Using It to ‘Speed up Science’

UQ Has a Super-Powerful Supercomputer, and Researchers Are Using It to ‘Speed up Science’

In 2019, I had the opportunity to chat with the University of Queensland’s chief technology officer about a new supercomputer the uni had – it was a real eye-opener into the world of research, and what exactly goes on behind the scenes at Australia’s prestigious education institutions.

Four years later, I revisited the work UQ is doing, meeting with the uni’s Research Computing Centre CTO Jake Carroll once again to see the state of, well, state-of-the-art computing in Australia.

Since then, the OG supercomputer system has been replaced with a new one. Now, the uni has Bunya (named after the native South-East Queensland tree), which is a Dell Technologies system that should make researchers’ lives a hell of a lot easier.

Bunya is what’s called a heterogeneous system, which means it uses multiple types of computing cores, like CPUs, GPUs, nodes, etc. It also is a phased system, getting new bits yearly to make sure it stays state-of-the-art.

I asked Carroll to compare the power of Bunya to say, a MacBook Pro laptop. He said it’s not even comparable.

“The best comparison I can give is that most of the codes that were running on the old systems [UQ had] … are running four times faster, or better, just because of a few years’ difference in manufacturing techniques in CPUs, multi-core architectures, bus speeds, lithography, the interconnect speed between the nodes – there’s lots of things and this is this is the interesting stuff about supercomputers,” he explained.

The real marvel is standing in front of a system like Bunya – that’s when you’ll truly get an appreciation about how things click together.

“It’s like building blocks of Lego – you connect faster highways together with faster components with more processing capability and you can get things from place to place across the supercomputer,” Carroll added.

“So, no, I can’t say how many MacBook Pros, but I can tell you that it’s certainly – just CPU work alone – it’s four times faster than any of the stuff we had a few years ago.”

university of queensland supercomputer
Image: University of Queensland

But what does that mean for the researchers that use Bunya?

In the research space, ‘time to discovery’ is of utmost importance. In a nutshell, Carroll explained, that means people spend part of their time in a lab, at a bench, and they work hard to figure out what their experiments look like. True, basic, science, really.

“If we can help them speed up a solution or get to a solution quicker, that is, decreased time to discovery – it means that cycle of capture, analyse, publish, understand is accelerated,” he said. “That means we discover stuff quicker. That’s really what it’s about. That’s the whole game.

“You speed up science.”

It’s pretty straightforward, actually: If you’ve got more resources available to you, the things you can simulate get bigger, and faster.

“In the 21st Century, scientific achievement is done through theorisation, simulation, the use of analytics, and the use of machine learning and deep learning, and it’s quite cyclical – you might do that a number of times, and each of those activities has a different requirement in terms of infrastructure,” Dell Technologies APJ CTO Andrew Underwood added.

Basically, that means you need a system that can handle what researchers actually need a big, shiny, and expensive supercomputing system to do in an environment like UQ.

It doesn’t mean researchers at the University of Queensland need to know how use the supercomputer, however. They can rock up and say, “This is my research, this is my theory, this is my data. What do you suggest?”.

It prompted me to ask the question that if having a system like Bunya was a drawcard for academics.

“20 years ago, you might see half of the students on a university campus with a laptop. Now, you’ll see everybody. And just like 20 years ago, you would have seen a small portion of a faculty accessing, or knowing what a supercomputer is or isn’t,” Underwood explained. “Whereas now, almost every researcher will be asking, ‘How could I take advantage of this tool?’”.

It’s pretty cool to think just how much compute power a system like Bunya can give universities like UQ and its researchers.

Image: iStock

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