Saudi Arabia Renews Commitment to Supercomputing

By Tiffany Trader

February 4, 2015

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), located on the Red Sea 50 miles north of Jeddah, is gearing up for a new supercomputer twenty-five times more powerful than its current system. Shaheen-2, a successor to the original Shaheen, is part of an $80 million contract with supercomputer maker Cray that reaffirms KAUST’s position as a world-class academic and research facility.

According to an article in MIT Technology Review, Shaheen-2 is a custom-built Cray XC40 system weighing nearly 100 metric tons. Features include DataWarp technology, a Cray Sonexion 2000 storage system, a Cray Tiered Adaptive Storage (TAS) system and a Cray Urika-GD graph analytics appliance. The petascale machine will serve the university’s primary research areas, including photovoltaic engineering, bioinformatics, reservoir modeling, water desalination and climate prediction. It will also be used to advance the field of supercomputing itself, as a testbed for the exploration of new algorithms and programming models.

Shaheen-2 is a follow-up to the school’s original supercomputer, Shaheen. The purchasing of the IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer coincided with KAUST’s founding in 2009, raising the profile of the fledging organization and demonstrating its commitment to HPC as an enabler of scientific progress. The latest investment brings the university’s total supercomputing spend to approximately $150 million, according to the MIT piece.

The initial installation, planned for May 2015, will house nearly 200,000 processor cores, packing a theoretical peak performance of 7.2 petaflops. The system will also include 17.6 petabytes of Sonexion Lustre storage and 790 terabytes of memory. Enhancements scheduled for fall 2015 will add a DataWarp burst buffer, providing over 1 terabyte/second of bandwidth. There is an option for next-generation processors and accelerators to be added at the two-year mark.

When it was installed, the original Shaheen, a 16-rack supercomputer with a theoretical peak of 222 teraflops, was the most powerful computer in the Middle East, occupying the number 14th spot on the TOP500 list of world’s fastest supercomputers. In the last five years, the machine’s ranking has fallen to the 335th position. With the acquisition of Shaheen-2, KAUST is once again the owner of a world-class supercomputer. If it were operational today, Shaheen-2 would be the ninth-fastest system globally, notes Professor David Keyes, the director of KAUST’s Extreme Computing Research Center.

In the larger picture, investment in technology, including supercomputing, is a path to economic diversification for Saudi Arabia, which is using its oil wealth to finance the transition to a knowledge-based economy. That said, the oil and gas industry continues to be a major user of HPC in the region with companies like Saudi Aramco and SABIC using KAUST supercomputing resources to enhance their business.

With the coming installation of Shaheen-2, the Computer, Electrical, and Mathematical Sciences and Engineering (CEMSE) Division at KAUST is looking to fill faculty positions in computational simulation and data analytics at an extreme scale.

KAUST’s CEMSE division put out a notice that is seeking qualified candidates to support the development of “numerical algorithms for emerging architectures with a premium on power efficiency at scale through reduction in communication, synchronization, and storage, and algorithm-based fault tolerance.”

Current priority areas for the department include:

• High performance computing paradigms, techniques, and software tools

• High performance computing systems and performance analysis

• Algorithms for extreme scale analytics

• Algorithms for extreme scale simulation

• Applications linking extreme scale analytics and simulation.

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