High-end computing proves its worth for UK researchers

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A machine called HECToR was shut down last year. For six years it was one of the most powerful computational ‘brains’ in Britain providing vast processing heft and speed so thousands of researchers could solve vital problems faster and refine new ideas more thoroughly. Now its legacy is helping shape the future.

Research teams fed HECToR enormous quantities of data and innovative algorithms to establish new knowledge in fields as diverse as aerospace, astronomy, cell biology, climate change adaptation, coding, finance, and nuclear fusion energy. It also revealed how a particular duck-billed dinosaur ran from predators.

Three different UK research councils – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) – contributed to the £118m cost of the facility throughout its lifetime.

A new report by Research Consulting Limited, Research in Focus Limited, Bulletin and Elsevier reveals the extensive benefits of that investment and implications for HECToR’s successors.

Computing impact

New supercomputers are often heralded for what they promise to do – their computational power, raw data processing feats and the efficiency of high-performance computing (HPC) hardware and software. In 2007, HECToR, built by US high-end computing pioneer Cray, was one of only two UK machines to figure in the list the world’s top 50 supercomputers.

These facilities cost a lot and go through regular cycles of commissioning, design, planning, procurement, construction, operation, upgrade and replacement, with funders seeking to ensure they perform well and users obtain maximum benefit from allocated computing time. Specifications tell only one part of the story.

HECToR (which stands for High End Computing Terascale Resources) could store 1 petabyte (1,000 million million million million bytes) of data and perform 800 teraflops (million million calculations per second). It was also one of the most efficient supercomputers ever built performing the same number of calculations as 100 laptops using about the same amount of energy as a lightbulb. What did this processing power achieve?

As the UK’s supercomputer was dismantled during 2014, the EPSRC commissioned a group of independent experts to articulate the scientific, economic and social impact of HECToR, from 2007 to early 2014, when it was replaced by its even faster successor ARCHER. Their report gathered data, elicited user feedback and collected case studies to show the benefits HECToR delivered and how it helped the UK hold its own in HPC.

Eddie Clarke, Senior Project Manager at EPSRC, said: “It is vital for the Research Councils and the UK government to evaluate and understand the impact of our investments. This report captures and communicates many of the exceptional outcomes HECToR’s computational power yielded for researchers and research users. It shows how the facility contributed to developing the UK skills base in high-performance computing and many other fields.”

A positive contribution to world-changing research

At its home in the University of Edinburgh’s secure Advanced Computing Facility (ACF), HECToR’s capacity was accessed by 2,500 users from 272 different organisations across the UK and beyond, encompassing universities and research institutions, government departments, business and industry. Utilisation of HECToR rose to 81% over the course of its life.

The review team identified at least 60 separate innovations supported by HECToR, a high proportion of which were considered “major discoveries and pioneering breakthroughs”. HECToR’s benefits span multiple discipline areas and 92% of users believed access to the facility improved the quality of their research.

HECToR enabled over 800 publications, which are twice as likely as the UK average to be in the top 5% of papers in their field. Enhanced approaches to modelling the performance of scientific codes, more chances for researchers to publish in high-impact journals, uplift in the quality of underlying science, and impact of UK work on the international scientific community were additional positive factors reported by users.

Overseas experts consulted for this review confirmed HECToR’s crucial role in keeping UK researchers at the forefront of international computational research. Through HECToR and its user consortia, UK academics could access pan-European HPC infrastructure and collaborate with the best researchers across the globe.

The UK belongs to a group of internationally leading nations, with world leadership in certain areas such as the simulation of inorganic materials.

Between 2007 and 2014, UK researchers continued to be leaders in their fields with new generations of scientists emerging; UK leadership could not have been sustained without the computing resources of HECToR.
Prof. Dr. Joachim Sauer of the University of Humboldt, Berlin.

Creating new leaders in HPC

Safeguarding a pipeline of skilled high-performance computing experts is of paramount importance to the health of UK computational research and to industrial users of HPC in the UK. Well over 100 PhD students were trained in high performance computing through their involvement in using and developing for HECToR.

The UK is an established world leader in developing and optimising HPC software. HECToR strengthened this position. Code improvements delivered through HECToR’s computational science and engineering (CSE) support service delivered millions of pounds of efficiency savings for academic and industrial HPC users.

The high-performance computing challenge for Britain

In early 2014, HECToR was replaced by its even faster successor, ARCHER, reflecting the perpetual need for the UK to reinvest in the latest technology to retain its competitive advantage. The huge investment in HPC by countries, including the US, China, Japan and Russia, meant even between HECToR’s introduction in late 2007 and its retirement in 2014 the UK’s share of global high-end HPC capacity dropped from 7.4% to 5%.

There remains tremendous untapped potential to leverage the national HPC service for the benefit of UK industry and society: strengthening links with industry as the EPSRC is doing with HECToR’s successor, ARCHER; securing the service’s status as a strategic asset with sustained investment in provision and support married to a more flexible, responsive approach to hardware procurement; and enhancing evaluation and monitoring to ensure impact is collected on an ongoing basis, clearly linking usage and research outcomes.

The UK’s strength in computational research is an indispensable tool in meeting the major economic and societal challenges we face as a nation – 88% of major research projects on HECToR progressed onto its successor, ARCHER. If the capability on which these strengths are built is allowed to erode, the long-term damage to the UK’s knowledge and skills base could prove irreparable.

To read the report in full, please visit a href=”http://www.storyofhector.org/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>www.storyofhector.org

Further information

The EPSRC-commissioned impact review of HECToR, the UK’s high end computing resource from 2007 to 2014, was prepared by specialists in research evaluation and communication from four organisations: Research Consulting Limited, Research in Focus Limited, Bulletin and Elsevier.

Media contacts

Interviews and additional information about the review, its methodology and case studies cited is available from Rob Johnson, Director, Research Consulting Limited.

Email rob.johnson@researchconsulting.co.uk or telephone +44(0)115 882 0377 or +44(0)7795 117737.

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