Birmingham Amps Up Research With New Linux Supercomputer

Upgraded high-performance-computing system, BlueBEAR II, to help University of Birmingham researchers solve tough problems such as cheaper fuel cells.

Gary Flood, Contributor

July 3, 2013

3 Min Read

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Researchers at the University of Birmingham are looking forward to cracking problems with a newly upgraded Linux supercomputer. The university's archaeology, economics, science and engineering departments are set to take advantage of the second generation of BlueBEAR, which will eventually include a Windows cluster, GPU cluster, render farm and other services. The University of Birmingham also plans to provide additional compute power to GridPP, a collaboration of particle physicists and computer scientists from both the UK and Europe's CERN facility.

The additional modeling power offered by BlueBEAR II will enable researchers to process larger, more detailed, more accurate simulations and test cases, in less time than before. For example, one of the service's major users, Prof. Roy Johnston and his team in the School of Chemistry, plan to ramp up research into computational nanoscience. Among planned projects: creating more cost-effective and more environmentally friendly catalysts for fuel cells and hydrogen cars.

BlueBEAR II replaces a previous in-house high-performance cluster installed in 2007. It uses a 15-teraflop processor with nearly 850 processing cores based on Intel's Sandy-Bridge eight-core processor. The Linux-based array is one part of the overall Birmingham Environment for Academic Research (BEAR) being jointly developed by the university, the supercomputer's supplier IT services firm OCF, and other specialist partners. BEAR is a set of complementary and inter-linked services designed to meet the diverse needs of the wide research base of the institution, says Birmingham.

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Key features of BlueBEAR II include a large memory service for data-intensive needs; a sophisticated visualization center, incorporating active stereo display and motion tracking; and highly scalable collaborative conferencing and collaborative visualization services, features claimed to be especially helpful to large and often international research groups. A future release will include a dedicated render farm, based on a mixture of CPU-only and GPU-assisted nodes, designed primarily for demanding off-line rendering.

The University of Birmingham has earmarked on-going funding for BlueBEAR so that it can develop to meet the needs of both current and new users. Given the tight state of funding in the British higher education system, that's worth noting.

"Yes, we had to take into account the funding regime when bidding for funds," Paul Hatton, an IT high-performance computing and visualization specialist at the university, told InformationWeek.

The system is funded by the university, not by external funding bodies, and so the case had to be made that it would "support the breadth of research that this university is involved in," he said.

Hatton said the Linux supercomputer has been "well received" by users of the old system and most of the ongoing projects that were benefitting from the previous service. But, he added, the next "and in many ways more difficult" challenge for his team is to widen the user base to those research areas that do not traditionally make use of a Linux HPC service. To do that, a Windows-based service is also being offered to researchers.

BlueBEAR II was designed, built and integrated by partner OCF, based on IBM System x iDataPlex system software. The server clusters also use IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager for data back up and IBM GPFS software to enable effective storage capacity expansion, enterprise-wide, interdepartmental file sharing, commercial-grade reliability, cost-effective disaster recovery and business continuity, as well as technology from other third parties, the university said.

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