Accelerating Scientific Discovery at the University of Melbourne

January 16, 2023

4,500 researchers with ~1,500 different projects leverage HPC at the University of Melbourne, translating discovery into meaningful, practical impact to benefit all of us.

The University of Melbourne is Australia’s leading research university, with a 165-year-long tradition of higher education in the arts, sciences and professional disciplines. Its enduring purpose is to benefit society through the transformative impact of education and research.

Research conducted at the University helps solve pressing social, economic and environmental challenges. From climate change to COVID-19, from cultural preservation to artificial intelligence, research at the University of Melbourne is adding to human knowledge and understanding to help society thrive. At the same time, the university’s research program is translating discovery into meaningful, practical impact to benefit all of us.

Winning the Race with Spartan

To carry out this research, the Spartan cluster from Dell Technologies combines traditional HPC capabilities with cloud computing systems to provide researchers with a shared pool of scalable resources that meets a wide range of research demands and is ready to grow with their evolving needs. The general-purpose on-premises Spartan system and connected cloud systems operate together as a single HPC environment.

Spartan is based on Dell PowerEdge servers in an OpenStack cloud environment. Following a 2020 upgrade, Spartan has 162 nodes that deliver peak performance of 1,698 teraflops. The system has 5,100 physical cores, 2.3 petabytes of primary storage and an additional 550 terabytes of flash. Other enhancements to the system include Open OnDemand, a portal that provides web access to HPC resources from anywhere.

In its first year in service, Spartan ran more than a million jobs, and the usage has risen steadily ever since, according to Lev Lafayette, the senior high performance computing development and operations engineer with the Research Computing Services group.

Fueling Amazing Research

Here are a few examples of recent and ongoing research initiatives.

  • Molecules in motion: In the realm of biophysics, researchers at the university are using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) processes that speed-freeze molecules to create images that can shed light on human cell behavior. This research requires powerful computational systems and software tools to align and combine millions of 2D images in order to generate 3D representations of the molecules.

Research of this type generates an enormous amount of data from scientific instruments. To deal with this challenge, the Research Computing Services group has a workflow and network to move the data directly from the laboratory instruments into storage systems, and them move the data into the Spartan system to run simulations and build the 3D models.

  • Wildfire resilience: In one of many notable climate-related projects conducted at the university, researchers developed nine principles for urban design and planning to reduce risk and improve the resilience of communities in bushfire-prone areas. For the next steps, the researchers are now looking at how urban planners can improve their understanding of building codes and associated development to enhance resilience.
  • Singing at the moon: And then there is the willie wagtail study conducted by a biosciences team from the university. The willie wagtail is an Australian songbird known for its wagging fan-shaped tail and pleasantly squeaky song. By recording birds across Victoria, the researchers confirmed the popular notion that willie wagtails sing out the most during full moon nights.

In this study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, the researchers recorded the nocturnal singing of willie wagtails over eight complete lunar cycles in four rural locations across Victoria. They found that the willie wagtails did indeed increase the amount of time they sang in line with the brightness of the moon — essentially making sure they are both seen and heard, according to the researchers.

“Today, every single one of our nodes is allocated, and nearly all of our GPU cards and cores are in use,” says Lev Lafayette, the senior high performance computing development and operations engineer with the Research Computing Services group. “That usage gives you an idea of the amount of research that’s going on in the system. We have more than 4,500 researchers who use the system, and around about 1,500 different research projects. To date, we have completed close to 30 million jobs on Spartan.”

For a closer look at the University of Melbourne Spartan system, see the video and/or read the case study. And to learn more about the University of Melbourne and its research, visit Research at Melbourne.

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