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Distributed supercomputer DiRAC gets a £20m upgrade

New funding will be used to boost performance and make the HPC system much more energy efficient

The DiRAC high-performance computing (HPC) facility has been given £20m funding to upgrade its supercomputer to support science simulation.

The new systems will be between three and five times more powerful than the existing DiRAC machines. This will provide crucial computing capacity that can be used to address immediate or emerging issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. 

DiRAC is a distributed facility supported by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It uses computing resources hosted by the Universities of Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh and Leicester and is overseen by the Project Office at University College London.

The distributed computing facilities allow the UK science community to pursue research on topics that include simulations of the entire evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, and models of the fundamental structure of matter.

UK STFC executive chair Mark Thomson said: “STFC is delighted at the announcement of new funding for the DiRAC HPC facility, to ensure that it can continue to support research in fields where the UK is world-leading.”

The £20m, provided via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the government’s World Class Labs funding scheme, will be used to deploy DiRAC-3, which upgrades the computing power at all four DiRAC sites. As well as being more powerful, the new HPC will be 10 times more energy efficient.

DiRAC project scientist and deputy director Clare Jenner, from University College London, said: “Theoretical research nowadays relies on supercomputers – we can’t do the calculations in any other way. So the DiRAC computers are vital to the future success of the UK in these fields.”

The upgrade will enhance the UK’s scientific leadership and productivity, said DiRAC’s director of innovation and technology, Jeremy Yates of University College London. “We are also contributing to the delivery of the UK’s innovation agenda,” he added. “We work with our industry partners to develop novel hardware and software solutions which can be used in many other applications.”

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The upgrade is also being used to support UK research and development in exascale computing and artificial intelligence research. Application areas include personalised healthcare, clean energy, government decision-making and solar weather forecasting.

DiRAC director Mark Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Leicester, said: “Today, high-performance computing underpins discoveries in almost all areas of science and innovation. Numerous studies have demonstrated the significant economic benefits of investment in high-performance computing and confirmed that to out-compute is to out-compete.

“While it was originally established to support the UK’s world-leading research in particle physics, astrophysics, cosmology and nuclear physics, DiRAC has delivered technological innovations with global impact and developed techniques now being applied in fields as diverse as personalised medicine, government planning and solar weather forecasting.”

The new computers will be deployed over the coming months, with first scientific results expected to be presented in September at DiRAC Day 2021, the annual community event.

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