Research & Innovation Services

Researchers get a performance boost

What is a High Performance Computing or HPC?

The term generally refers to the practice of aggregating computer power in a way that delivers much higher performance than one could get from a typical desktop computer. High Performance Computers allow scientific researchers and engineers to solve large, complex computational problems which are too big for a single machine to compute. This is achieved by dividing up the task into smaller, more manageable sized tasks and sharing these, concurrently, across multiple computers (parallel computing).

The University of Bath’s current HPC system is called Balena. It was named after the Italian word for Whale because it shares a few characteristics, in that they are both large, intelligent and never fully sleep. The performance of HPC systems is generally measured in the number of calculations they can perform in one second and Balena can provide a combined (CPU and GPU) theoretical computational performance of over 110 Trillion (10^12) floating-point operations per second (FLOP/sec).

Investment into Research Infrastructure

The Balena system is an investment valued at £1.36 Million, with over £1 Million financed by the University directly, announced by Vice Chancellor, Dame Glynis Breakwell, at the November 2013 edition of Let’s Talk. Other investors include the EPSRC SAMBa CDT, based in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and a joint investment from Professor Richard Butler (Mechanical Engineering) and Professor Robert Scheichl (Mathematical Sciences). The chosen partner who delivered the Balena HPC system and who also provided sponsorship for three PhD studentships is ClusterVision.

Dean of the Faculty of Science and Chair of the HPC Advisory Group, Professor David Bird, has said:

‘This is an excellent example of how substantial investment from the University makes a real difference to the research infrastructure available to our academics, postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. The new HPC system is not only significantly larger, thus providing more computational capacity, it also adds new capabilities that will allow us to expand the base of users across the University.’

Hebron and Medlock Professor of Information Technology, James Davenport has added:

‘Balena with over 3,000 CPU cores as opposed to Aquila’s 800, and additional accelerators, delivers over 7 times as many floating-point operations. But Hamming said “The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers” and I hope the new visualisation capability, and the greater ease of sharing data between Balena and the desktops, will produce more insight for the University of Bath.’

High Performance Computing service manager, Dr Steven Chapman said:

‘Computing Services is committed to managing and developing this central resource, as well as assisting our research community to do their research. Since the Balena service was launched we have seen a huge uptake from the users of the previous system and a growing interest from researchers from non-traditional HPC areas’.

Professors Butler and Scheichl stated: ‘In our interdisciplinary project, we are developing new computational tools that allow aerospace engineers to reduce their reliance on very costly test programmes to certify aircraft structures. The Balena HPC system will enable the simulation of industrial-scale problems on large aerospace parts taking into account micron-scale material properties.’

SAMBa is an EPSRC centre for doctoral training based in mathematical sciences, with an ambition to train over 50 PhD students in statistical applied mathematics by 2022. Professor Paul Milewski, co-Director of SAMBa said: ‘Balena is a fantastic resource for our students. Currently we have one student who is using the system to model air pollution, with relation to health, and we expect many more projects to use Balena HPC service in the coming years’.

Anatomy of Balena

The Balena HPC system is made up of over 3,000 Intel IvyBridge Xeon compute cores, over 40 many-core GPU and Xeon Phi accelerators cards and a dedicated 200TBs of high performance parallel storage for HPC workloads. Typically, HPC workloads are queued up through a batch service, but Balena offers a dedicated development zone and a high-end visualisation suite designed for interactive workloads.

Further information about HPC at the University of Bath.

Watch a video about the installation ‘birth’ of Balena HPC system.