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July 15, 2014

NSF Petaflopper Skips Retirement for New Life in Africa

Tiffany Trader

Quick obsolescence goes hand-in-hand with cutting-edge technology. Supercomputing is no exception, and it’s not unusual for these great machines to have lifespans of only a few years. While some retired number crunchers go into storage to perhaps be reconstituted by a museum in a later decade, other systems have happier retirement stories. Such is the case with the Texas Advanced Computer Center’s (TACC) Ranger supercomputer, which was hailed as the first open science petaflopper when it launched in 2008.

In 2013, after five years as a flagship National Science Foundation (NSF) system, Ranger was broken down and shipped from Austin to South Africa, Tanzania and Botswana to support fledging supercomputing efforts there. Racks were also delivered to Texas A&M, the Baylor College of Medicine, and the Applied Research Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin. TACC science writer Jorge Salazar describes Ranger’s compelling journey in a recent feature piece.

Ranger was ground-breaking in many ways, recalls Tommy Minyard, co-principal investigator and director of Advanced Computing Systems at TACC.

“The most important impact Ranger had on the supercomputing community was the fact that we were able to build a system of that scale using commodity components, commodity processors, and InfiniBand technology,” explains Minyard. “Nobody had ever built an InfiniBand network with that many nodes on it, at that scale, with that many processors.”

Owing to its design as a commodity cluster, any given rack can function as a standalone machine, which enabled the system to be divided in this manner. Since Ranger was delivered to the African centers, a collaboration has formed between the various research groups who received Ranger racks in late 2013 and early 2014, including the Center for High Performance Computing in South Africa. Several universities that received racks are using them to teach parallel computing and carry out science.

TACC Executive Director Dan Stanzione remembers how the idea got started. Discussions regarding what to do with the machine when it reached retirement age eventually turned to Africa and using the racks to ignite interest and passion in supercomputing.

“Often I look back at my career, and we all started building clusters with the pieces that we could get our hands on,” said Stanzione. “Now we build the top systems in the world. We couldn’t have done that if at one point we didn’t start building clusters at a smaller scale.”

“It’s a huge win and the right thing to do,” be continues. “It’s an opportunity for one of the world’s top supercomputers to continue to have a big impact on a lot of people who still need it.”

Happy Sithole (pronounced ‘see-toll-yah’), director of the Center for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in Cape Town, South Africa, considers the gift a boon to the future of high performance computing in Africa.

“It’s a beacon and an instigator of success to come,” Sithole said. “I’m looking forward to the repurposing of Ranger in establishing high performance computing activities in Africa and the legacy this supercomputer will leave. It’s a very good thing for us to have chosen a system like Ranger in this space.”

Sithole is hopeful that once a base for supercomputing is established, and the benefits are experienced that it will jumpstart the purchasing of new technologies.

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