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March 23, 2011

HPC Wales Taps Fujitsu to Build Supercomputing Grid

Michael Feldman

HPC Wales has selected Fujitsu to deliver a 190-teraflop high performance computing grid that will be deployed at a number of sites across the Welsh countryside. Fujitsu will be paid £15m ($24 million) over the next four years to set up and maintain the computing infrastructure for the project, as well as provide application and computing expertise.

Announced in July 2010, HPC Wales is an ambititous five-year project intended to kickstart the use of high performance computing across academia and industry in Wales — and potentially further afield. The idea is to construct a supercomputing grid for supporting university R&D to be used as a springboard for commercial HPC adoption. Major targeted applications include digital entertainment, environment and energy, life sciences, advanced materials, and manufacturing.

HPC Wales hopes to be able to sell supercomputing time to regional businesses to help support and grow the effort, but most of the impetus behind the effort is being driven by the academic research community. More than 100 HPC-ready projects encompassing 540 researchers have already been identified. Of these, 80 percent had either current business partners or potential commercial applications.

The project is being funded to the tune of £40m: £19m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF), and £10m from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The remainder will come locally from collaborating academic institutions, the Welsh Assembly Government, and the private sector. About £4 million of this is coming from Fujitsu, itself, who is investing in the project as a partner. HPC Wales will be managed by a non-profit alliance set up by the St David’s Day Group of Universities and the University of Wales.

The deal will mark the return of Fujitsu-bred HPC to the United Kingdom after a 10-year hiatus. It will also represent the company’s largest HPC deployment in Europe to date. Although the Japan-based firm is multinational in scope, in the HPC arena Fujitsu has tended to stick close to home, collecting government-backed HPC deals at a fairly regular clip.

Thanks to the project, 450 Fujitsu employees will be now be working at offices in Swansea and Cardiff, a sizable contingent given the relatively modest size of the contract. To put that in perspective, Cray would have had to send more than half its workforce to Wales to equal this effort.

No information was forthcoming about other vendors bidding on the contract, but one can speculate that Tier 1’s with a strong European presence (such as IBM, HP, and Bull) were also in the running. The fact that Fujitsu was awarded the deal is something of a coup, and suggests the Japanese computer maker was serious about its intentions to become an HPC technology exporter.

Not that the company lacks the HPC cred to close a big deal. Fujitsu is the primary contractor for Japan’s Next Generation Supercomputing Project. The company became the lone system vendor when NEC and Hitachi backed out of the project in in 2009. That work will culminate in the 2012 deployment of a 10-petaflop SPARC 64 VIIIfx-based “K system” supercomputer for the government-backed RIKEN research institute.

Nothing quite so exotic for the Welsh, however. The HPC Wales computing grid will be made up of 1,400 Fujitsu Primergy servers, using Intel Xeon processors and InfinBand interconnects. The individual clusters, which will be installed at 12 different sites, will run either Linux or Windows. Those individual systems will use similar technology to Fujitsu’s Primergy BX900 machine at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. That system alone tops 190 teraflops — larger than the entire HPC Wales setup.

Other vendors that will be supplying equipment or software for the project include Intel, Platform Computing, Microsoft, Mellanox, DataDirect Networks, Cisco and Symantec.

The major hubs for HPC Wales will be at Swansea University/Pembrokeshire Science and Technology Park and Cardiff University, with links to smaller systems at Swansea, Aberystwyth, Bangor and the University of Glamorgan. Additional links will be made to the University of Wales Alliance Universities and participating businesses.

The server clusters at the individual sites will be hooked up via a high bandwidth network (the details of which were not immediately available) so as to make the computing resources available as a grid. Fujitsu’s secret sauce is their SynfiniWay middleware technology, which will provide a service-oriented framework for the grid in the style of a private cloud. Basically SynfiniWay manages workflows through the grid/cloud by way of its meta-scheduler, while providing a high-level interface to the end user that hides most of the messy details of the hardware infrastructure.

The overarching goal of the project is to stimulate the Welsh economy and make the area a regional base for high performance computing. The effort is projected to bring in an additional £22.8m of economic output over the next 10 years, while creating over 400 high-end jobs and at least 10 new businesses. That seems fairly modest in scope, especially considering the £40m input for the project.

Although the project is only funded for five years, all the stakeholders hope and expect the work will be extended well beyond 2015.  To make that possible the project will have to attract enough commercial partners to become self-sustaining such that it can cover operational and equipment costs going forward. If successful, it could become a model for other efforts to mainstream HPC for commercial users.