Advanced Supercomputer Powers Scientific Research

Scientific research is among the most demanding applications for computers, requiring high-powered, state-of-the art systems. The Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) in Barcelona, Spain, recently upgraded its computing infrastructure to better serve the scientific community and society at large.

Founded in 2005, BSC has a twofold mission: to offer supercomputing facilities and services to scientists in Spain and throughout Europe, and to create knowledge and technology to benefit mankind. The center employs 500 people, including 400 who conduct research across a wide range of areas, including everything from earth and life sciences to biochemistry, astronomy, engineering, computing and more.

The Operations Department, which has a staff of 27 led by Director Sergi Girona, manages the supercomputer. The previous system, MareNostrum 3 (Latin for “our sea,” referring to the Mediterranean Sea), which was installed between 2012 and 2013, was falling behind the times.

“It was becoming outmoded and was no longer competitive,” Girona says. “We needed more capacity and higher performance to run the simulations and computations involved in scientific research.”

BSC put out an RFP, and out of the three bids received, selected an IBM solution with a Lenovo system: an 11.1 petaflop high-performance computing (HPC) system dubbed MareNostrum 4. “It offered the most competitive combination of performance, capacity and price,” Girona recalls. The package also includes three smaller, emerging technology systems: one each from Lenovo, IBM and Fujitsu.

Implementation of MareNostrum 4 began this spring and took less than four months. “It was a very tight schedule, especially for a system of this size,” he acknowledges, “and we faced challenges, because some of the components were not generally available in the commercial market.”

Despite the hurdles, the HPC system was fully up and running on July 1.

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The system is powered by 3,456 nodes of Lenovo’s next-generation servers, featuring Intel Xeon Platinum scalable processors and a central memory of 390 terabytes, interconnected with more than 60 kilometers of high-speed Intel Omni-Path Technology 100 Gb/s network cabling. With peak power of about 11.1 petaflops per second, it can run trillions of operations per second.

MareNostrum 4 represents a significant upgrade over MareNostrum 3. It has three times as many processors, with 11 times as much performance power, yet it is more energy- efficient. For context, Girona points out that it is more than 300 times faster than the original MareNostrum system installed in 2004.

“Because we have more than 3,400 cores and more memory, we can launch very large apps and perform more complex analyses,” he says.

There are currently about 80 projects under way in fields such as human genome research, personalized medicine, bioinformatics and biomechanics. Specific research projects involve climate change and the effect on Arctic sea ice, an AIDS vaccine, new radiation treatments to fight cancer and simulations relating to the production of fusion energy, among other areas.

The scientific community can apply to use the system, with access determined by peer review. Applicants must demonstrate they can use the system properly and are required to publish results. Currently, BSC researchers use about 4 percent of system capacity, Spanish researchers about 16 percent and European researchers about 80 percent.

Though MareNostrum 4 is still new, Girona is already planning for the next upgrade. The aim of gradually incorporating emerging technologies into MareNostrum 4 is to allow BSC to experiment with what are expected to be the most advanced technological developments over the next few years and to evaluate their suitability for future iterations of MareNostrum.

“We are already looking ahead to 2021,” Girona says. “The process of applying for funding from the Spanish and European governments and putting out RFPs takes time, so we must work a few years out.”