Quebec supercomputer opens for business

A group of Quebec universities has officially launched a supercomputing installation that will give Canadian researchers 77 teraflops of computing power.

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The 7,680-core Sun Constellation System, which was built at Université Laval with the help of Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc., is being operated by the Consortium Laval, Université du Quebec, McGill and Eastern Quebec (CLUMEQ). This organization is part of a larger high-performance computing group known as Compute Canada, which is comprised of various research communities throughout the country.


Marc Parizeau, a professor of computer engineering at Université Laval and the deputy director of CLUMEQ, said the new supercomputer will bring world class infrastructure to CLUMEQ and Compute Canada scientists. The system will be useful for getting any large, compute-intensive project off the ground, he said, which is particularly important in climate and ecosystem modeling, cosmology, and high-energy physics.


“People who didn’t have access to large HPC infrastructure would not start the project or they would need to ask for special grants to buy equipment,” Parizeau said.


For instance, researchers in the earth sciences department at the Université du Quebéc à Montréal are trying to predict and model what will happen to the earth, oceans and atmosphere over the next 100 years.


“They do climate modeling and they needed a larger machine to increase the resolution of their model,” Parizeau said, referring to the resolution grids researchers can use when conducting climate modeling.


“The resolution of their model is very important to get better predictions, otherwise their model is more approximate and their predictions after 10 years or after 100 years will be less precise.”


With climate change already starting to make headlines ahead of next month’s Copenhagen Climate Summit, this type of research is certainly timely, but even more important could be the actual design of the supercomputing system itself.


According to CLUMEQ, the system is the first circular clustered supercomputer in the world and is built fully cylindrical and symmetrical to optimize air flow distribution. Parizeau said that because the data centre — which is housed in a large concrete silo — has no corners, air can easily circulate through the three levels.


Sebastien Ruest, vice-president of services and technology research with IDC Canada Ltd., said that because the supercomputer was not built via a horizontal model, it can take advantage of the simple concept that hot air rises. He added that the circular design might also require less cabling.


The system, Parizeau said, arrives at a crucial time for many Canadian scientists, as the country has lagged behind in the HPC space for a number of years. Parizeau said that while Canada is farther along than countries like Spain and Italy, the U.S. and many other European countries are still setting the bar.


“Canada has been lagging behind in HPC infrastructure and now we’re doing a little catching up,” he said.


Ruest said the innovative design and the powerful processing power will help put Canada on the map in the supercomputing space. He added that Canadian organizations should continue to challenge themselves with innovative new data centre design plans and move away from the traditionally boring way of building computing infrastructure.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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