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2 December, 2018 - 22:41 By Kate Sweeney

Arm powers new supercomputer for scientific research

UK university research coalition GW4, the Met Office and NASDAQ-quoted supercomputer leader Cray Inc. have joined forces to leverage technology from Cambridge chip architect Arm to power a new era of scientific research.

The partners reveal that the Arm®-based supercomputer, named Isambard, is now live in the UK. It is the largest Arm-based system in the world outside of the US and one of the first systems of its kind to be used for scientific research as well as to explore future computer architectures in the exascale era. 

Isambard is a Cray XC50™ system with Marvell ThunderX2™ processors based on the 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture and was designed by the GW4 Alliance in partnership with Cray and the Met Office.

Isambard, named after 19th-century British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, will be part of the EPSRC-funded Tier-2 High-Performance Computing ecosystem in the UK and leveraged by EPSRC-funded researchers as well as various labs within the GW4 Alliance – a coalition of four leading, research-intensive universities in the UK (Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter).

Professor Simon McIntosh-Smith, the principal investigator for the Isambard project and a professor of high-performance computing at the University of Bristol., said: “The Isambard project was first conceived in early 2016 and we’re delighted to be nearing the production phase of our journey towards real Arm-based supercomputing.

“Isambard represents the first of what we expect will become a growing number of production supercomputers that will exploit Arm-based processors. 

“These will deliver significant benefits in terms of price/performance and faster product innovation thanks to increased competition in the market.”

The GW4 Alliance and the Met Office partnered with Cray to design Isambard because of the flexibility the Cray XC50 system offers when integrated with Arm processors. 

Cray’s high-quality system software, including compilers, math libraries and performance analysis tools developed for Arm processors, also played a crucial role in choosing Cray to deliver the Isambard system.

Steve Scott, CTO at Cray, said: “The Cray XC50 system was purpose-built for running today’s most challenging supercomputing, data analytics and AI workloads requiring sustained multi-petaflop performance. 

“This flexible Arm-based production supercomputer provides researchers a full software environment, Arm-optimised compilers, libraries, tools and the computational performance they need to successfully get the job done.”

The Met Office is both the host for Isambard and a fully contributing member of the project. Paul Selwood, principal Fellow in Supercomputing at the Met Office said: “We are really excited to see competitive early performance on the Met Office’s key weather forecast and climate prediction codes and look forward to improving this further as we gain more experience with the system.”

Arm said it was thrilled to work with the GW4 Alliance and its industry collaborators on such a potentially powerful project – and one that marks the dawn of a new era for supercomputer use.

Brent Gorda, senior director of HPC, Infrastructure Line of Business, Arm, commented: “With production deployments of Arm-based systems in key HPC environments now underway, Arm is proud to work with the GW4 Alliance to support its Isambard users at all stages of application development and testing,.

“Our ongoing collaboration has further expanded the Arm HPC software ecosystem, shown great performance results for prevalent HPC applications, and helped enable a larger variety of architecture options for the HPC community.”

• Photograph courtesy of the GW4 Alliance

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