July 15, 2014

Austrian Unis Stand Up Paraffin-Cooled Supercomputer

Tiffany Trader
Austria VSC-3 server room

Despite stagnation at the upper echelon of supercomputing, countries around the world are continuing to invest in supercomputing as a tool for science and innovation. In Austria, several universities have joined forces to purchase an energy-efficient supercomputer that relies on oil immersion to keep cool.

Eight Austrian universities are participating in the project and will share the supercomputing resource, which was recently installed at the Science Center at Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) and became operational on July 4, 2014.

Phase VSC-3 (Vienna Scientific Cluster 3), as it’s called – VSC-1 and VSC-2 were predecessors – emphasizes not just computing power but energy-efficiency, facilitated by an innovative oil-based cooling method. Built by Clustervision, VSC-3 has 2,020 nodes, each with 16 processor cores, for more than 32,000 cores in all. Capable of outputting 600 teraflops of computing power, VSC-3 will accelerate research in a wide range of disciplines, including meteorology, materials research, biology and particle physics.

“Modern science would be inconceivable without adequate simulation and calculation methods,” explains Horst Bischof, Vice Rector for Research at Graz University of Technology. “As a technical university, it is crucial that we have access to the requisite computer capacities. Take, for example, the simulations performed in modern-day mechanical engineering. With VSC-3, we can provide our researchers with a modern infrastructure that can compete on an international scale.”

VSC-3 employs oil-cooling instead of air or water to keep its power-hungry processors from overheating. The system’s processors are immersed in tanks containing 35 tonnes of paraffin oil. Because there is no air cooling, the computer room can forego costly and energy-intensive air conditioning systems.

According to Professor Herbert Störi of TU Wien, a project manager for VSC-3, the system uses about 540 kilowatts of power – around 0.8 kilowatts per teraflop. This is a much better efficiency metric than that of its predecessor, the VSC-2 cluster. Although it was very energy-efficient for its time, the 150-teraflops VSC-2 cluster required roughly 2.3 kilowatts per teraflop.

Project officials explain that the VSC-3 was designed primarily for energy-efficiency and to satisfy the needs of the Austrian science program, and not to meet an artificial target. “Many of the computers currently topping the world rankings are now made up of graphic cards. However, we need to offer processors on which the existing scientific programme codes will run as well as possible,” states Professor Störi. “You have to make a choice: do you want a racing car or do you want a bus, which can transport many more people with a similar amount of power? In any case, VSC-3 is ideally suited to the current needs of Austria’s scientific community.”