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October 17, 2013

EU Calls for Unified Supercomputing Strategy

Tiffany Trader

Last month the preeminent European research body PRACE, the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe, initiated a more holistic approach for boosting Europe’s competitiveness with the vision of “supercomputers for all.” With HPC firmly established in the scientific community, it’s time to extend the benefits of supercomputing into channels of industry to promote economic opportunity. To help bring this new guiding principle to light, PRACE has published a special report describing the challenges Europe faces as well as the major themes and thrusts of the EU’s Horizon 2020, the €70 billion flagship R&D program that is set to begin in January 2014.

The report “Supercomputers for all: the next frontier for high-performance computing” developed out of an event of the same name held in Brussels last month, sponsored by Science|Business. The conclusion of PRACE Chair Catherine Rivière and other experts at the event was that neither science nor industry has yet to realize the full potential of the HPC.

The special report covers a lot of ground, from a rallying cry for how supercomputing is absolutely essential for driving growth and innovation in the 21st century to a series of case studies, dealing with such important topics as drug research, finance and climate science. It’s a document with a Eurocentric approach, but the messages are applicable to any nation or state.

In her foreword, Catherine Rivière, chair of the PRACE Council, writes:

“PRACE has made significant progress since its formation in 2010 and the move in 2012 to open up supercomputing resources and services to industry for open research. It now supports a resilient, pan-European infrastructure that is an exemplar for how pooling resources can make European research and industry stronger. However, much remains to be done to bolster Europe’s position in the supercomputer league, to increase the adoption of high performance computing across all scientific and industrial communities, and to ensure sustainability of the infrastructure for the future.”

Rivière states that extracting the full potential from HPC technologies requires a lot more than just access to processing power. If the past decades have focused too much on performance, the difficult challenge of building an exascale supercomputer and developing suitable applications provides an opportunity to come at the problem more holistically. The issues at hand – from the engineering challenges to the healthcare and climate science fields – will benefit from a global ecosystem. For PRACE, one of the main aims of this large-scale undertaking and refocusing is providing the skills and services that European industry needs.

“In the past decade high performance computing has transformed the practice – and the productivity – of science,” state the report’s authors. “Now this analytic power must be opened up to industry, to improve decision-making, spur innovation and boost competitiveness.”

Of course the expansion of HPC has already begun. Starting in the 1960s, supercomputing progressed with the backing of federal R&D into the halls of government and university datacenters, but there’s been a shift over the last decade or so as industry has seen what HPC can do for design breakthroughs, competitiveness and profitability. For companies that could afford the price of admission, HPC made business-sense, it could boost innovation, reduce development costs, and speed time to market. The outcome was experienced by the public in the form of safer cars, quieter airplanes, and more effective medications.

The need for more powerful computers is still there. Consider the demands of big data, the challenges to develop personalized medicine and the necessity for sustainability energy sources. The degree of sophistication required by these large-scale modeling and simulation problems can only be matched by the next-generation of supercomputers, one-hundred times more powerful than today’s best machines.

According to Konstantinos Glinos, Head of the eInfrastructure Unit at DG Connect in the European Commission, the EU is well-positioned to be a dominant player in the supercomputing race. However, unlocking the benefits of the exascale era and providing technical advantages to science and industry will only be possible with an increased investment in HPC.

But Glinos warns against an overemphasis on hardware. “We don’t just need hard cash, we need to address the full HPC ecosystem,” he said. “We need to develop next-generation technology and applications, provide the HPC services that EU industry and scientists need, and ensure availability of computational skills.”

The report also pushes forward the message that the EU can catch up, but only through swift action. One of the key points in the Horizon 2020 strategy is that technology is essential to European competitiveness and quality of life. Glinos notes that while other nations have established HPC as an essential priority, Europe has not had the same emphasis, investing “substantially less than other regions.”

Glinos maintains that Europe can catch up quickly if it is willing to dedicate funding to a concerted effort. He points to China as an example of a nation that started out with a deficit of knowledge and talent and managed to achieve spectacular results in a relatively short time.

“If we want to be leaders in this race, the Commission will play its role to the maximum extent,” he said. “But it also depends on whether industry is willing to take risks and invest, and also the extent to which member states are willing to engage.”

Collaboration is essential to EU’s “supercomputers for all” strategy. Although the challenges and costs associated with a massive undertaking like this are beyond the means of any one country, through the pooling of efforts and resources, much more can be accomplished. It’s time to “act now and put Europe’s long term common interest in the driving seat,” Glinos remarked.

The call to action is for a more integrated, holistic approach that identifies and addresses all the important action items under one unified strategy. The Horizon 2020 program includes these three main elements of support for HPC:

+ PRACE will continue to provide HPC resources for industry and academia, with a plan under discussion that may see actions to cover operational costs in the infrastructure. These actions will be framed as part of the Excellence in Science pillar of the H2020 programme.

+ ETP4HPC will drive the autonomous EU development of exascale technologies with relevance for European industry.

+ The creation of multiple centers of excellence in high-performance computing within several different application areas, which will be selected on a competitive basis. The first centers are due to be launched in 2015. One of the focal points for these centers will be addressing the shortage of skilled HPC programmers through training programs. There is also a mandate to increase HPC adoption in the SME communities.

The special report makes it clear that European leaders are worried about losing ground in science and industry. More and more, a nation’s ability to leverage supercomputing technology provides a fair gauge of their overall economic standing. As Member of the European Parliament Ioannis Tsoukalas states: “Supercomputers are not some kind of fringe luxury item, or mere scientific tools. These days they are indispensable, considering the way research and technological development are being conducted.”

“When we check the latest top500 list of supercomputers,” he continues. “We only find a couple of installations in Germany in the top-10 while the rest is dominated by installations in China and the US. In total numbers, Europe comes now after the US and China. US and China are speedily pursuing the development of exascale systems that are going to be game changers. Europe cannot afford to stay behind.”

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