Singapore's supercomputer ambitions get a timely, much-needed boost
A sum of S$200 million is earmarked to give the 1-petaflop Aspire 1 supercomputer a capacity boost of up to 20 times.
SINGAPORE: “We want to solve bigger problems,” the Institute of High Performance Computing’s (IHPC) Dr Michael Sullivan said, matter-of-factly.
The department director of Materials Science and Chemistry at the Agency for Science Technology and Research's IHPC said that these problems can range from everyday applications like developing hand lotions for Asian skin to designing biodegradable plastic bottles.
Singapore’s only supercomputer – Aspire 1 – can, for example, be used to digitally simulate how a component of hand lotion would interact with different skin samples, reducing the need for costly and time-consuming experiments using physical test subjects, he explained during a recent interview with Channel NewsAsia.
But the wait time to use Aspire 1 can sometimes drag on for days and more compute resources are needed for IHPC to do its work well, he shared.
A proposed S$200 million upgrade will thus boost its capacity significantly – potentially making it one of the top 20 supercomputers in the world.
It is not just the research community that is actively tapping on the Aspire 1’s sought-after compute resources.
Industry players like Keppel are using the supercomputer for a range of activities from digitally testing and improving its rig and ship designs to mapping out the airflow at its data centres for optimum usage.
A company spokesperson said in an email that Keppel, through the Keppel-National University of Singapore Corporate Lab, uses Aspire 1 to run models to visualise gas and liquid flows to improve the safety and fuel efficiency of its products.
Using digital means to design products like container ships and liquefied natural gas (LNG) bunkering vessels also helps to cut down the amount of time and resources needed by “about four to five times”, the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, at Keppel’s data centres, the company is using the computing prowess of the Aspire 1 to study airflow patterns for hot and cold air at these facilities.
“This is important in tropical Singapore where the bulk of energy consumption in data centres goes towards cooling equipment,” the spokesperson explained.
These “very high” demands on the supercomputer were highlighted by Professor Tan Tin Wee, chief executive of the National Supercomputing Centre (NSCC), which is in charge of the Aspire 1.
He told Channel NewsAsia the supercomputer has been running at more than 90 per cent capacity for the past two years – which is higher than the average of 50 per cent to 60 per cent usage among other computers of its ilk.
Prof Tan likened the situation to an expressway, where traffic may be held up by a big trailer truck (projects that require heavy computing resources) entering the road.
Similarly, traffic jams can also occur when many small cars (smaller computing workloads) are lined up and produce a backlog, he explained.
As it is, the NSCC has a user base of about 4,000 working on more than 400 projects.
“We expect these numbers to grow as demand for supercomputing and high-performance computing resources increases from both the public and private sectors in Singapore,” he said.
This is why Prof Tan said the recent announcement by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to upgrade Singapore’s supercomputing capabilities is “timely”.
Mr Heng said during the recent Supercomputing Asia 2019 conference that the supercomputing facility is currently engaged in work like modelling climate change and designing digital twins of products - from tiny chips to oil rigs and aerospace engines.
“How we transform all our industries, sector by sector, systematically, and search for new engines of growth, will be key to our future economy. In this regard, high-performance computing can play a key role,” he said, adding the National Research Foundation will pump in S$200 million to upgrade existing supercomputing capability.
This, he said, will provide 15 to 20 petaflops of high-end compute performance. With this, the country can work on challenges such as analysing urban mobility conditions and driver behaviour on the road.
“This enables planners to design a more flexible and efficient transport system, to optimise traffic flow and to make travelling more efficient for our people,” Mr Heng said.
Elaborating on how the funds will be used, Prof Tan said it could possibly go towards building a supercomputer with the abovementioned capacity, accompanying storage facilities, “ultra-green” data centres and extensive network connectivity to facilitate advanced research among the industry and academia here.
There are even talks being held to assess the viability of housing the next supercomputer on a floating platform, though the chief executive quickly qualified that the relevant authorities will need to provide a digital simulation of all possible scenarios of doing so before any decision can be made.
The NSCC is no stranger to managing supercomputers in challenging conditions. The Aspire 1, after all, is housed on the 17th floor of a commercial office building, making it one of the world’s highest high-performance computing data centres.
This means having to manage situations oftentimes out of its control just to keep the supercomputer running. For instance, Prof Tan recounted how cold water supply, needed to prevent the servers from overheating, was suddenly cut and employees had to rush back to manually shut the systems off.
Later, they discovered a basement tenant had caused a water leak that resulted in the disruption in water supply, he shared.
Regardless of where it is housed eventually, Singapore’s supercomputing aspirations are not about climbing the ranks of the world’s top supercomputers.
The Aspire 1 currently sits in the 422nd spot of the TOP500 list of supercomputers as of November 2018, and the announced capacity boost will propel the country up to the top 20, but Prof Tan said it will never be able to compete with the likes of the United States and China.
The US, in fact, has announced plans this month to build its fastest computer by 2021 for conducting nuclear weapons and other research – its supercomputers currently take up the top two spots in the TOP500 list.
Instead, it aims to be an enabler for the wider ecosystem to solve challenges and create good jobs, the chief executive explained.
“The enhanced supercomputing platform will help Singapore to solve complex national challenges, more quickly and more effectively than today,” Prof Tan said.
“It will also open up more opportunities for Singapore companies to increase its global competitiveness and create good jobs for Singaporeans.”